CAIRO // Protesters demanding that President Hosni Mubarak step down packed Cairo’s central square by the tens of thousands yesterday, singing the national anthem, waving Egyptian flags and displaying limbs bloodied and bandaged from clashes with the government’s supporters.
Groups of pro-Mubarak loyalists began the day aiming to dislodge the anti-government protesters encamped in Tahrir Square, in what has become a struggle for control over a highly symbolic piece of ground. Instead, the loyalists were defeated by throngs of Egyptians who streamed over bridges across the Nile into the square, defying government warnings and pushing aside their own fears of the violence that has left at least 300 dead and thousands wounded.
By the end of what protest leaders had dubbed the “Day of Departure,” Mr Mubarak had not vacated the presidential palace. Demonstrators made it plain, however, that they were not defeated.
“We will remain here and stay strong in our demands until he goes,” said Ahmed Nabil, a 25-year-old accountant.
After two days that saw pro-Mubarak gangs hurling chunks of concrete and firebombs and storming the ranks of the protesters on horses and camels, the protesters appeared undaunted and unwilling to accept the concessions offered by the government, including a pledge by Mr Mubarak not to run for re-election and a promise by his son, Gamal, not to replace him.
Thousands prostrated in noon prayers and immediately after uttering the prayer’s concluding “God’s peace and blessings be upon you”, they began chanting their message to Mr Mubarak: “Leave! Leave! Leave!”
The 11th day of protests came hours after the Egyptian leader said he would happily step down from office but for his concern that anarchy would break out in his absence.
“I am fed up. After 62 years in public service, I have had enough. I want to go,” Mr Mubarak, 82, said in an interview with the American Broadcasting Company.
“You don’t understand the Egyptian culture and what would happen if I step down now,” the president said he told President Barack Obama. “I’m afraid the Muslim Brotherhood will take over.”
News reports said US officials were discussing with Egyptians different scenarios for a transition of power, including one in which Mr Mubarak leaves office immediately.
Mr Mubarak’s predictions of chaos were shared by many Cairo residents. Businesses across the city remained shuttered and residents stayed indoors.
Like many Cairenes, Saif, 22, an engineering graduate, has spent the past week guarding his upscale Mohandiseen neighbourhood from looters. He said he was eager for democracy but worried about the chaos that would likely follow if Mr Mubarak left office.
“I guess I’m one of those wait-and-see people,” he said. “I feel that in the short term, I’m pro-Mubarak, but in the long term I think having a democratic government would be great.”
n Tahrir Square, there was no programme of speeches or musical entertainment, a fixture at many political demonstrations. Instead, protesters chanted, sang and made preparations to wait out Mr Mubarak.
Supporters brought falafel sandwiches and traditional Egyptian flatbread, while those inside the Omar Makram mosque, at the western end of the square, filled up water bottles and distributed them to scores of demonstrators.
A long row of articles from both local and foreign newspapers was laid out on the concrete to update demonstrators on the latest developments.
To the demonstrators, Cairo’s central square has become a symbol of the struggle for human rights, ranking alongside Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and Prague’s Wenceslas Square.
“This is about our dignity,” said Ahmed Wahba, 41. Nearby, standing next to a makeshift barricade, Sabah Ghouda said she would not be intimidated by threats of violence.
“If I’m killed so that the Egyptians here can live in freedom, then I’m ready,” said Ms Ghouda, 23, a medical student.
Amid these earnest expressions of resolve, many demonstrators wore faces sagging with exhaustion after demonstrating for days in the square and fending off two days of attacks. Some had bloodied gauze and white medical tape hanging from their heads and limbs. Others limped across the square, clutching leg injuries. The injured, however, bore their wounds like badges of honour.
Ashraf Mousilly, 46, a factory manager, said he had been wounded the previous night by gunfire from the president’s supporters. He pulled down his trousers and pointed to the bandage on his left hip. “This is Mubarak and his system. We have come here to die for our freedom. There are thousands here like me.”
Egypt’s powerful army moved yesterday to prevent clashes between opponents and supporters of Mr Mubarak, creating corridors for anti-government protesters to reach the square.
Nevertheless, some protesters remained wary and were leaving nothing to chance.
Waleed Amin directed people at the square’s western entrances, next to the mosque. The 32-year-old sales manager and other demonstrators had created a barrier made of sheets of scrap metal, pieces of chain-link fence and burnt-out vehicles they had flipped on their sides.
“We don’t know if the military is with the people or Mubarak, but it seems – it seems – to be a little more with the people today. But if we felt the military was completely on our side, we wouldn’t have put up these barriers,” Mr Amin said.
Attacks on reporters and news outlets continued yesterday, as the Qatar-based satellite channel Al Jazeera said its website had been hacked and its Cairo offices “stormed by gangs of thugs” and burnt.
“It appears to be the latest attempt by the Egyptian regime or its supporters to hinder Al Jazeera’s coverage of events in the country,” a statement from the network said.
Egypt’s state-owned media have relentlessly attacked the anti-Mubarak protesters, impugning their patriotism by portraying them as the inspiration and design of outside forces or the dupes of external manipulation. Egyptian officials and Mubarak loyalists have reserved particular scorn for Al Jazeera, whose 24-hour coverage of the demonstrations has challenged, if not upstaged, state media.
* With additional by Chris Stanton in Cairo and Associated Press