Egyptian protesters held a massive “departure day” rally Friday Feb. 4, aimed at ousting President Hosni Mubarak. Tens of thousands again filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square—although this time army troops in riot gear backed up with armored vehicles formed a cordon around the square and controlled access, effectively separating the protesters from pro-Mubarak mobs, and avoiding violence. Inside the square, the atmosphere was festive—although there was no sign that Mubarak had responded to demands that he step down.
At one end of the square the faithful prayed in the open, beneath two traffic lights from each of which hung an effigy of Mubarak. “We were born free and we shall live free,” prayer leader Khaled al-Marakbi said in his sermon. “I ask of you patience until victory.” Worshipers used newspapers, banners or even Egyptian flags as prayer mats, reciting the traditional prayer for the dead in memory of the more than 300 who have lost their lives in the protests. The prayer leader and many in the vast open-air congregation were visibly in tears.
There was a new pro-Mubarak rally in Cairo’s upscale Mohandeseen neighborhood—but it was attended by dozens rather than the tens of thousands seen in Tahrir. There were a few scattered incidents of violence around the city, however. AlJazeera news network, its operations in Egypt now officially shut down, said a “gang of thugs” had ransacked its Cairo offices.
Will he stay or will he go?
Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi visited Tahrir Square to appeal to demonstrators to give up their protest campaign and accept Mubarak’s offer of a pledge not to run in September elections. But opposition groups from across the spectrum have dismissed the concession as inadequate and have rejected calls by newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman (Mubarak’s veteran intelligence chief) to enter talks. Tantawi even appealed to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood to enter negotiations—to no avail.
Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie told AlJazeera television that he stood ready to enter talks—but only after Mubarak has gone. “We stand with all the political forces supporting dialogue with whoever wants to implement reforms in the country after the departure of this unjust, corrupt tyrant,” he said. “We have a single demand. Once it is met, we will engage in dialogue.”
In his first interview since the protests erupted, Mubarak told ABC television’s Christiane Amanpour he was fed up with being president and would like to leave office now, but cannot for fear that the country would sink into chaos—and that the Muslim Brotherhood would take power.
Mixed signals form Washington
European Union leaders demanded that the transition to democracy in Egypt start “now” in a joint statement that also condemned violence in the country “in the strongest terms.” The Obama administration, while speaking in stronger terms than a few days ago, has been considerably more equivocal.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Washington had traced the violence against the protesters to “elements close to the government and the ruling party,” even if it is not clear how far “up the chain” it goes.
But Adm. Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned against cutting off aid. “I would just caution against doing anything until we really understand what’s going on,” Mullen said in an interview on ABC News.
Asked a possible freeze of US aid to Egypt—as a move that Sen. John McCain has said is being considered—Mullen replied: “That’s not mine to decide. But at the same time, I’d like to understand a little bit more about what’s going on before we took any specifics.” He said the aid has “established a relationship…of great strength” between the US and Egyptian military calling it as “an investment that’s paid off over a long period of time.”
See our last post on Egypt.