Opposition leaders say they will begin talks with the military on a timetable for change – but only when the president steps down
A million Egyptians tell Mubarak to go
CAIRO // At least one million Egyptians took to the streets yesterday in scenes never before seen in the Arab nation’s modern history, shouting in unison for president Hosni Mubarak to quit.
The army’s pledge on Monday not to use force against demonstrators emboldened Egyptians to push for the biggest shake-up of the political system since 1952, when army officers deposed King Farouk.
More than 250,000 crowded into Tahrir Square in central Cairo and 20,000 marched in Suez. Demonstrations were held in Alexandria on the north coast, Ismailia and cities in the Nile Delta such as Tanta, Mansoura and Mahalla el Kubra.
In a week of protests, Mr Mubarak’s government has repeatedly tested the resolve of anti-government protesters and each time they have proven unbowed. Their numbers, if anything, have grown, despite the government’s shutdown of the internet and intimidating shows of force by the military and security forces. Mr Mubarak’s attempts to placate demonstrators by replacing his cabinet and appointing a vice president for the first time have not defused fervent demands that he step down.
In the capital, authorities halted the public transport system yesterday, but that did not deter protesters either. In their tens of thousands, they streamed into Tahrir Square. The peaceful crowd was jammed in shoulder to shoulder – schoolteachers, farmers, unemployed university graduates, women in conservative headscarves and women in high heels, men in suits and working-class men in scuffed shoes.
They sang nationalist songs and chanted the anti-Mubarak “Leave! Leave! Leave!” as military helicopters hovered overhead. Organisers said the aim was to intensify marches to get the president out of power by Friday. Entire families streamed through the square, where they held up colourful, often humorous, signs. “Please resign – my arms are getting tired of holding this,” one sign said.
At a rubbish pile, someone had taped a sign saying “The new headquarters of the National Democratic Party”. The ruling party’s former home was burnt down on Friday night as police withdrew from Cairo.
Troops and Soviet-era and newer US-made Abrams tanks stood at the roads leading to the square, a plaza overlooked by the headquarters of the Arab League, the campus of the American University in Cairo, the famed Egyptian Museum and the Mugammma, an enormous winged building housing dozens of departments of the country’s notoriously corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy.
Authorities shut down all roads into Cairo. Train services nationwide were suspended for a second day and all bus services between cities were halted.
All roads in and out of the flashpoint cities of Alexandria, Suez, Mansoura and Fayoum were also closed.
Thousands of protesters gathered in Alexandria, Suez, the southern province of Assiut, the city of Mansoura north of Cairo, and Luxor, the southern city where about 5,000 people protested outside its landmark Ancient Egyptian temple on the east bank of the Nile.
Normally bustling, Cairo’s streets outside Tahrir Square had a fraction of their normal weekday traffic.
Banks, schools and the stock market in Cairo were closed for the third working day, making cash tight. Long queues formed outside bakeries as people tried to replenish their stores of bread, the price of which was spiralling.
An unprecedented shutdown of the internet was in its fifth day after the last of the service providers abruptly stopped shuttling internet traffic into and out of the country.
Cairo’s international airport remained a scene of chaos as thousands of foreigners tried to flee. Planes ranging from private jets to Boeing 737s and a 220-seat Airbus SAS A310 have been employed in the airlift. Saudi Arabian Airlines, for instance, repatriated 14,115 people from Egypt between Friday and Monday.
The official death toll from the crisis stood at 97, with thousands injured, but reports from witnesses across the country indicated the actual toll was far higher. Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said up to 300 people may have died so far in the unrest.
A coalition of opposition groups said yesterday they had told the government that they would begin talks with the military on the lifting of the decades-long state of emergency and a transition to democracy only after Mr Mubarak steps down.
“All of Egypt is now in one trench. There’s no difference between one opposition stream and another,” the coalition said in a statement. Our “demands are non-negotiable. The system should declare its agreement and after that we can negotiate about the mechanism and timetable for the change”.
The coalition includes secular opposition parties and the Muslim Brotherhood and was endorsed by the prominent opposition figure, Mohammed ElBaradei, according to Ayman Nour, the former presidential candidate, and Said el Badawai, chairman of the Wafd Party.
The two men addressed reporters at Wafd Party headquarters, but the circumstances of the meeting served only to underscore questions about the cohesiveness of the opposition to Mr Mubarak.
Representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood were not present and participated only by phone. Mr ElBaradei, who had been expected to appear, sent an aide instead.
More importantly, the coalition said it could not speak for the country’s powerful youth opposition movement, who so far have operated largely in secret.