Egypt braces for mass protests

February 1, 2011 12:00 am

, CAIRO, Feb 1 –  Egyptians plan mass marches on Tuesday in their campaign to oust President Hosni Mubarak, reassured by the all-powerful army, which has said their demands are legitimate and that it will not fire on them.

As Mubarak announced a new cabinet that saw the demise of a widely feared interior minister, and the newly appointed vice president offered talks with the opposition, protesters pushed ahead with a singular goal of forcing the president from office.

They announced an indefinite general strike and called for a "march of a million" in the capital on Tuesday, the eighth day of an uprising that has claimed at least 125 lives in clashes between demonstrators and police.

Another million-strong march was planned in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, as national train services were cancelled in an apparent bid to stymie protests.

 The new demonstrations will come as the hated police have returned to the street after a mysterious two-day absence that protesters said was a ploy to sow a sense of insecurity.

But while it remains unknown what posture police will adopt in the face of the strike and marches, the army stated clearly that it would not confront the demonstrators.

"To the great people of Egypt, your armed forces, acknowledging the legitimate rights of the people," stress that "they have not and will not use force against the Egyptian people," the military said in a statement.

Tens of thousands of protesters had carpeted Cairo\’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the epicentre of demands for an end to the corruption, deprivation and police oppression indelibly associated with Mubarak\’s 30-year rule. 

"We will stay in the square, until the coward leaves," the crowd chanted.

Eid Mohammed, an organiser of the protests, told AFP: "It was decided overnight that there will be a million-man march on Tuesday. We have also decided to begin an open-ended general strike."

Faced with the biggest protests of his presidency, an increasingly embattled Mubarak has appointed his first-ever vice president and a new prime minister in a desperate attempt to hold on to power.

A new cabinet unveiled on Monday did little to placate the protesters. However, the departure of interior minister Habib al-Adly, whose notorious security forces have been accused of systematic human rights violations, was welcomed.

 "We will accept no change other than Mubarak\’s departure," said one protester who asked not to be named.

Another, Rifat Ressat, said: "We want a complete change of government, with a civilian authority."

Police were ordered back onto the nation\’s streets on Monday, after an absence during which the army was deployed in the face of the revolt, but few policemen were visible on Cairo\’s streets. 

Their vanishing act remains unexplained officially, but it left the city prey to looters and jail-breakers, and residents formed self-defence groups to protect their patches.

  As the anti-regime campaign continued apace, Vice President Omar Suleiman said Mubarak had tasked him "with opening immediate talks with the political forces to begin a dialogue around all the issues concerning constitutional and legislative reforms."

Meanwhile, Arab League chief Amr Mussa, a highly former Egyptian foreign minister often tipped as a possible successor to Mubarak, called for a peaceful transition. 

"There has to be a peaceful way forward, a peaceful transition … from an era to the other," Mussa told AFP. "It is incumbent upon politicians or people working in politics to help that process."

Protesters massed in downtown Cairo vowed that Mubarak\’s resignation would not be enough, while Egypt\’s main opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, called for them to press on until they bring down his creaking regime.

Amid chaos and lawlessness, several foreign governments said they would evacuate their nationals, and the United States authorised the departure of embassy families.

 Washington, a key ally of Egypt, has urged Mubarak to do more to defuse the crisis, with President Barack Obama calling for "an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people."


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