CAIRO // Mohammed ElBaradei returned to Egypt last night to join anti-government protests in which seven people have died and more than a thousand have been arrested in the past three days.
The Nobel Laureate and pro-democracy advocate arrived from Vienna last night and said he would join the demonstrations today.
“It is a critical time in the life of Egypt. I have come to participate with the Egyptian people,” Mr ElBaradei said as he left Cairo airport, where he was greeted by a small group of supporters. “The desire for change must be respected.”
Mr ElBaradei, the former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency arrived even as a senior official close to the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, said the government was “ready for a dialogue” with protesters but would not allow a “minority to force its will on the majority”.
Rallies of tens of thousands of people in cities across Egypt on Tuesday were followed by smaller marches and demonstrations over the past two days. Police were able to shut down most demonstrations in Cairo yesterday, but the city of Suez saw violent clashes between police and demonstrators for a second straight day.
Protesters want, among other demands, the resignation of Mr Mubarak and his prime minister, the dissolution of the current parliament, the lifting of an emergency law that gives the security forces sweeping powers, and changes to the constitution to allow free elections.
Mr ElBaradei, writing yesterday for the Daily Beast, a website based in the US, said: “This week the Egyptian people broke the barrier of fear, and once that is broken, there is no stopping them."
The National Coalition for Change, a group championed by Mr ElBaradei, has gathered a million signatures for its petition to reform the country’s constitution and guarantee free elections. The success of Mr ElBaradei’s group in convincing so many citizens to declare, in writing, their opposition to the autocratic government had proved a powerful inspiration for protesters, said George Ishaq, a co-founder of the secular opposition group Kefaya, who said he is helping co-ordinate the protests.
Nonetheless, Mr ElBaradei has been criticised by some supporters for spending too much time abroad in the last year. He remains unknown to many working-class Egyptians, his critics contend. This week’s protests have gathered wide-ranging support among ordinary Egyptians in large part because they are not led by a specific politician or groups like the secular political parties or the Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed Islamist movement, analysts say.
In text messages and Facebook posts, activists have urged Egyptians to gather near mosques after prayers today. “Tomorrow is a turning point in our lives,” Mr Ishaq said of large protests planned for today. “That’s what I said about the 25th of January and it happened.”
The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) attempted to strike a conciliatory note with protesters in a press conference yesterday, with Safwat el Sharif, the secretary general, promising the party would talk with the opposition.
“We are confident of our ability to listen,” he told reporters. “The NDP is ready for a dialogue with the public, youth and legal parties.”
In Cairo, protesters continued a two-day sit-in at the lawyers’ association and vowed to stay until Mr Mubarak resigned. Ringed by lines of riot policemen, several dozen protesters within the compound lead lawyers in chants against the government.
“The Bar is the revolution and it will always be a citadel of freedom,” said Mahmoud al Shazley, a 38-year-old lawyer.
In Suez, the city that sits at the southern end of the canal, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at hundreds of demonstrators after they earlier attacked two government buildings and a police post with fire bombs, Reuters reported. The fires were extinguished before significantly damaging the buildings, government officials said.
>The interior minister, Habib el Adli, dismissed the demonstrations in comments to al Rai, a newspaper in Kuwait. “Egypt’s system is not marginal or frail. We are a big state, with an administration with popular support. The millions will decide the future of this nation, not demonstrations even if numbered in the thousands,” he was quoted as saying. “Our country is stable and not shaken by such actions.”
The interior ministry said on Wednesday that 500 had been arrested during the days of protest, while lawyers at the bar association said the total is now more than 1,000.