Cairo: Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, from students and doctors to the jobless poor, swamped Cairo on Tuesday in the biggest demonstration so far in an uprising against an increasingly isolated President Hosni Mubarak.
Waving Egyptian flags and banners saying “Bye-Bye Mubarak,” the protesters rejected promises of reform to his authoritarian rule and demanded that he quit.
Huge rallies also took place in the cities of Alexandria and Suez, where protesters chanted: “Leave, leave. Revolution, revolution everywhere.”
Opposition figurehead Mohamed ElBaradei said Mubarak, 82, must leave the country before the reformist opposition would start talks with the government on the future of the Arab world’s most populous nation.
“There can be dialogue but it has to come after the demands of the people are met and the first of those is that President Mubarak leaves,” he told Al Arabiya television.
Mubarak’s grip looked increasingly tenuous after the army pledged on Monday night not to confront protesters, effectively handing over the streets to them after they pledged to bring out one million people nationwide.
The uprising of a population fed up with corruption, oppression and economic hardship broke out eight days ago and quickly spiralled to a crisis unprecedented during 30 years of rule enforced by ruthless security forces.
The disintegration of Mubarak’s power structure would usher in a new era in modern Egyptian history and reconfigure the geopolitical map of the Middle East, with huge ramifications for Washington and allies from Israel to oil giant Saudi Arabia.
The army, a powerful and respected force in Egypt, dealt a possibly fatal blow to Mubarak on Monday night when it said troops would not open fire on protesters and that they had legitimate grievances and a right to peaceful protest.
Soldiers in Tahrir (Liberation) Square, that has become a rallying point for the protests, erected barbed wire barricades but made no attempt to interfere with people. Tanks daubed with anti-Mubarak graffiti stood by.
Barbed wire barricades also ringed the presidential palace, where Mubarak is believed to be hunkered down.
“We have done the difficult part. We have taken over the street,” said protester Walid Abdel-Muttaleb, 38. “Now it’s up to the intellectuals and politicians to come together and provide us with alternatives.”
Effigies of Mubarak were hung from traffic lights and some protesters carried a mock coffin.
The crowd included lawyers and other professionals as well as workers and students, showing the breadth of opposition to Mubarak. Women and men stood together holding hands.
The demonstration was an emphatic rejection of Mubarak’s appointment of a new vice president, Omar Suleiman, cabinet reshuffle and offer to open a dialogue with the opposition.
US Sends Envoy
“The succession is already under way,” said Steven Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The important thing now is to manage Mubarak’s exit, which must be as graceful as possible at this point. For honour’s sake, the brass won’t have it any other way.”
US special envoy Frank Wisner, a former ambassador to Cairo, has been sent to Egypt to meet leaders.
The United States and other Western allies could only watch as thousands demanded the downfall of a stalwart ally who has been a key figure in Middle East peace moves for decades.
Washington called for reforms and free elections but it is also concerned that Islamists could gain a slice of power should Mubarak be forced out.
The prospect of a hostile neighbour on Israel’s western border also worried Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He said he hoped Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt would survive any changes that took place.
But pressure on Mubarak came from elsewhere.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said Mubarak should listen to the people’s demands. The solution to political problems lay in the ballot box, he said.
The British government said it was disappointed by the new cabinet as its members were unlikely to produce the kind of political change demanded by the country’s citizens.
The UN human rights chief, Navi Pillay, said Tuesday’s rallies could be a “pivotal moment” for Egypt.
Protesters were inspired in part by a revolt in Tunisia which toppled its president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January. But years of repression have left few obvious civilian leaders able to fill any gap left by Mubarak’s departure.
The military, which has run Egypt since it toppled King Farouk in 1952, will be the key player in deciding who replaces him. Some analysts expect it to retain significant power while introducing enough reforms to defuse the protests.
ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said Mubarak must leave the country so the opposition could start a dialogue with the government on transitional power arrangements.
“If President Mubarak leaves, then everything will progress correctly,” he said.
Mohammed al-Beltagi, a former member of parliament from the Muslim Brotherhood, said the opposition was operating under an umbrella group, the National Committee for Following up the People’s Demands, which includes the Brotherhood, the National Association for Change headed by ElBaradei, political parties and prominent figures including Coptic Christians.
Muslim brotherhood emerges
The hitherto banned Muslim Brotherhood, a well-organised Islamic group, stayed in the background early in the uprising but is now raising its profile. Analysts say it could do well in any election.
At least 140 people have died since demonstrations began last Tuesday, most in clashes between protesters and police.
Foreign governments have taken steps to evacuate nationals trapped by the unrest, including thousands of tourists. Companies also pulled out staff as the confrontation brought economic life to a halt.
In global markets, investors shifted focus from worrying about Egypt as improved economic data and corporate results in the developed world lifted stocks.
The price of oil, the most sensitive indicator of market unease about Egypt, eased although Brent crude was still a few cents above $100 a barrel.
The Egyptian crisis has prompted bursts of risk aversion on financial markets over the past few days. The main concern is the prospect of the unrest spreading to the autocratic oil-producing Gulf nations.