Egypt's opposition calls for 1 million on streets
Published: Monday, January 31, 2011 at 10:33 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 31, 2011 at 10:33 a.m.
CAIRO — A coalition of opposition groups called for a million people to take to Cairo's streets Tuesday to demand the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, the clearest sign yet that a unified leadership was emerging for Egypt's powerful but disparate protest movement.
In an apparent attempt to show change, Mubarak named a new government Monday. But the lineup dominated by regime stalwarts was greeted with scorn by protesters camped out for the fourth day in the capital's central Tahrir, of Liberation, Square.
"We don't want life to go back to normal until Mubarak leaves," Israa Abdel-Fattah, a founder of the April 6 Group, a movement of young people pushing for democratic reform.
If Egypt's opposition groups are able to truly coalesce — far from a certainty for movements that include students, online activists, old-school opposition politicians and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood — it could sustain and amplify the momentum of the week-old protests.
A unified front could also provide a focal point for American and other world leaders who are issuing demands for an orderly transition to a democratic system, saying Mubarak's limited concessions are insufficient.
Banks, schools and the stock market in Cairo were shut for the second working day. Long lines formed outside bakeries as people tried to replenish their stores of bread, the main source of sustenance for most Egyptians.
Barbed wire sealed off the main road to Tahrir Square but thousands of people gathered.
Cairo's international airport was a scene of chaos and confusion as thousands of foreigners sought to flee the unrest in Egypt and countries around the world scrambled to send in planes to fly their citizens out.
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.
The White House said President Barack Obama called Britain, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia over the weekend in the U.S. to convey his administration's desire for restraint and an orderly transition to a more responsive government.
European Union foreign ministers urged a peaceful transition to democracy and warned against a takeover by religious militants.
In Cairo, the coalition of groups, dominated by youth movements but including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, were discussing the possibility of making prominent reform advocate Mohamed ElBaradei spokesman for the protesters, members said.
Spokesmen for several of the groups said some 30 to 40 representatives were meeting to discuss the future of Egypt after Mubarak, whom they blame for widespread poverty, inflation and official indifference and brutality during his 30 years in power.
They said the coalition wants the march from Tahrir Square to force Mubarak, 82, to step down by Friday.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to form an Islamist state in the Arab world's largest nation, said it would not take a leadership role in the opposition coalition. Western governments and many secular Egyptians have expressed fears about a significant Brotherhood role in Egyptian politics.
"We don't want to harm this revolution," Mohamed Mahdi Akef, a former leader of the group, said.
ElBaradei, a pro-democracy advocate and former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, invigorated anti-Mubarak feeling with his return to Egypt last year, but the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood remains Egypt's largest opposition movement.
Its support base comes in large part from its elaborate network of social, medical and education services. It made a suprisingly strong showing in parliamentary elections in 2005, winning 20 percent of the legislature's seats, but it failed to win a single seat in elections held late last year and are widely throught to have been rigged in favor of Mubarak's ruling party.
Mubarak, a former air force commander in office since 1981, is known to have zero tolerance for Islamists in politics, whether they are militants or moderates, and it remains highly unlikely that he would allow his government to engage in any dialogue with the Brotherhood.
Rashad al-Bayoumi, the Brotherhood's deputy leader, said that, "What we hope to reach in today's meeting is formulating a united strategy to remove Mubarak ... "What we have here is the Egyptian people's biggest chance to affect regime change."
Al-Bayoumi told The Associated Press that a joint committee would issue demands that, besides Mubarak's ouster, include the release of political prisoners, setting up a transitional government to run the country until free and fair elections are held and prosecuting individuals thought to be responsible for the killing of protesters.
A leading Muslim Brotherhood official, Saad el-Katatni, told The Associated Press that "we didn't deputize anybody because we don't want anybody to be solely in charge," but if the coalition agrees on naming ElBaradei, "this is fine."
The meeting of opposition groups excluded the legal opposition parties that had been allowed to operate under Mubarak, said Abouel Elaa Maadi, a representative of al-Wasat, a moderate breakaway faction of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Meanwhile, Mubarak swore in a new Cabinet whose most significant change was the replacement of the interior minister, Habib el-Adly, who heads internal security forces and is widely despised by protesters for the brutality some officers have shown. A retired police general, Mahmoud Wagdi, will replace him.
The new line-up of Cabinet ministers announced on state television included stalwarts of Mubarak's regime but purged several of the prominent businessmen who held economic posts and have engineered the country's economic liberalization policies the past decades. Many Egyptians resented to influence of millionaire politician-moguls, who were close allies of the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, long thought to be the heir apparent.
In the new Cabinet, Mubarak retained his long-serving defense minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
The longest-serving Cabinet minister, Culture Minister Farouq Hosni, was replaced by Gaber Asfour, a widely respected literary figure.
Egypt's most famous archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, was named state minister for antiquities, a new post.
State newspapers on Monday published a sternly worded letter from Mubarak to his new prime minister, Shafiq, ordering him to move swiftly to introduce political, legislative and constitutional reforms.
Mostafa el-Naggar, a member of the ELBaradei-backing Association for Change, said he recognized no decision Mubarak took after Jan. 25, the first day of Egyptian protests emboldened by Tunisians' expulsion of their longtime president earlier in the month.
"This is a failed attempt," said el-Naggar. "He is done with."
The coalition also called for a general strike Monday, although much of Cairo remained shut down anyway, with government officers and private businesses closed.
Police and garbage collectors appeared on the streets of Cairo and subway stations reopened after soldiers and neighborhood watch groups armed with clubs and machetes kept the peace in many districts overnight.
One group fended off a band of robbers who tried to break in and steal antiquities from the warehouse of the famed Karnak Temple on the east bank of the Nile in the ancient southern city of Luxor.
The locals clashed with the attackers who arrived at the temple carrying guns and knives in two cars around 3 a.m, and arrested five of them, said neighborhood protection committee member Ezz el-Shafei.
The locals handed the five men to the army, which has posted a handful of soldiers at the vast temple's entrance.
In Cairo, soldiers detained about 50 men trying to break into the Egyptian National Museum in a fresh attempt to loot some of the country's archaeological treasures, the military said.