Hundreds of thousands join Egypt protests

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

CAIRO — More than 200,000 protesters streamed into Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Tuesday for the largest demonstration in a week of unrest against Egypt’s embattled government, and international pressure on President Hosni Mubarak intensified.

Army tanks and soldiers took positions across the
city, but as on other days, there was little tension between the
military and the protesters. Demonstrators at checkpoints helped troops
check identification cards of those flowing into the square. Voices
blared from megaphones as the crowd chanted the Egyptian national
anthem, while military helicopters buzzed overhead.

The Mubarak government in recent days has offered
concessions, such as opening talks with opposition groups and reforming
the constitution, but it has done little to placate a nationwide revolt
calling for the president’s removal. There seems scant compromise
between the government and the masses, while the military balances
precariously between the two.

The unrest in Egypt
has mesmerized the region. Some wonder whether Mubarak — who for 30
years in power has skillfully crushed dissent — might be forced to step
down or risk pulling the nation into a prolonged crisis that could
further damage its economy, most notably tourism. More than 120 people
have died over the last week.

In harsh words aimed at Mubarak, Turkish Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an increasingly pivotal figure in Middle
Eastern affairs, said Tuesday: “No government can survive against the
will of its people. The era of governments persisting on pressure and
repression is over. … We are all passing and will be judged on what we
leave behind.”

Protesters came from all ages and walks of life: high
school students; workers, medical professionals, married couples and
gray-bearded Islamists.

“Leave Mubarak,” they chanted. “We don’t want you.”

Ahmed Ali, a businessman in a gray suit, said he had
come to the square because he was tired of government corruption. Ali,
who imports marble from abroad, complained about the ritual of
government bribes he must pay every time he goes to the airport to pick
up goods.

“I have to pay them money at the airport because
their salaries are so low,” he said. “The government pushes them to
demand kickbacks.”

Mohammed, a 22-year-old tennis coach dressed in a
blue track suit, had come even after being caught up a week ago in
clashes with police who raided a mosque where he was praying.

“We can’t find work. We have problems with bread,
problems with electricity,” he said. “Our biggest problem is to get
Mubarak to go away.”

The huge crowd descended on the square after protest organizers called for a million compatriots to flood the streets.

Egyptian authorities shut down Internet traffic and
cellphone service ahead of the protest, in the apparent hope that it
would prevent demonstrators from coming to the square.

Al-Arabiya reported that authorities had blocked the road between the cities of Suez and Cairo
to stymie the flow of protesters. The ruling National Democratic Party
also has called for a counter-demonstration in support of Mubarak.
Meanwhile, a coalition of Egyptian human-rights groups has issued a call
for Mubarak to step down.

Crowds inside the key expanse at the heart of the
Egyptian capital have been growing day after day since Saturday, when
security forces stopped trying to halt demonstrators from gathering in
the square.

Tuesday’s new arrivals seemed to energize protesters
who had spent another chilly night in the plaza, and the crowd broke
into a full-bodied roar of “Down, Mubarak, down!”

Sparked by the popular protests that overthrew Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali on Jan. 14, huge numbers of Egyptians have revolted against Mubarak, his allies in the security forces and his National Democratic Party.

The protesters demand an end to what they describe as
a repressive, incompetent and corrupt regime that has failed to improve
the lives of ordinary people while restricting civil liberties and
violating human rights. Though leaderless, they appear to have coalesced
around Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former
secretary general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings have galvanized the Arab world. Protests have erupted in Jordan, Yemen, Algeria and Lebanon. There have been calls for fresh protests in Yemen on Thursday and Syria on Saturday. Even Iran’s dormant opposition “green movement” has begun stirring back to life.

“Everyone knows that what is happening in Egypt is shaping the future of the Arab world,” commentator Rafiq Khouri wrote Tuesday in the Lebanese daily al-Anwar. “If democracy prevails in Egypt, there will be no dictatorial rule in the Arab world.”

But the unrest, sparked in part by economic grievances, for now has stifled the economy of Egypt and caused volatile shifts in equity and commodity prices worldwide. Tourists, a mainstay of Egypt’s economy, have flooded Cairo’s
airport, struggling to leave the country. Looters and bandits, some
with suspected ties to Mubarak’s security forces, have wrought havoc
throughout the country, spurring ordinary Egyptians to set up makeshift,
round-the-clock checkpoints in their neighborhoods.

The unrest also has worried Israel. The staunch U.S. strategic ally shares a border with Egypt, which is among the few Arab countries that has a peace treaty with Israel. Egypt also plays a critical role in stemming the flow of weapons into the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the militant group Hamas. On Monday night, three rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel, according to Israeli media.

Media outlets in Israel have dispatched reporters to Egypt. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced worries late Monday that radical Islamists could fill any power vacuum should Mubarak’s regime collapse.

Over the last two days, the crowd in the square was
drawn from all walks of life, including secular middle-class
professionals and pious Muslims of modest means. But the bearded,
religious element has become more visible, and dawn brought a long audio
burst of Quranic verses. After being caught off guard by the protests,
the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group and one of the cornerstones of political Islam in the Middle East, has thrown its support behind the movement and endorsed ElBaradei as a transitional figure.

Some suspect a ploy.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is using ElBaradei,” analyst
Yoni Ben-Menahem told Israeli radio. “They are allowing him to
negotiate, and the world is impressed to see the Nobel laureate.”

But others, including in Israel,
noted that the brotherhood lacked a charismatic leader, has been
decimated by the Egyptian security forces, discredited politically and
also has moderated its politics in recent years.

Among those streaming toward Tahrir Square, there was a sense of anticipation, with an overlay of anxiety.

“The government has made many mistakes,” said Ali Ramadan, a 54-year-old flower seller. “We pray to God that all will be well.”

(c) 2011, Los Angeles Times.

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