Anti-Government Protests Roil Egypt
Thousands Of Egyptians Mass To Demand Mubarak Go
Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:27 am
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak bowed to pressure from a week of massive anti-government protests and said Tuesday that he would step down after the next election.
"I am totally keen on ending my career for the sake of the nation in a way that guarantees handing over the banner in an atmosphere of security, stability, safeguarding our legitimacy and preserving our constitution," Mubarak said.
The televised announcement — unthinkable at any time before in Mubarak's 30-year rule — signaled how much things have changed in Egypt since Jan. 25, when protesters first took to the streets.
"I never wanted power or prestige," he said on state TV, saying that "I can honestly say that I was not intent in standing for the next elections."
He called the demands of protesters "legitimate" but complained that the peaceful demonstrations had been "exploited by those … who want to destroy the constitution."
"The events of the last few days impose on us all … choosing between chaos and stability," he said.
Mubarak said he planned to spend the next months working toward "presenting Egypt to the next government in a constitutional way."
The Egyptian president said he had reached out to the opposition, an offer that was "still on."
"But there are political forces that have rejected this call for dialogue and held on to their private agendas," he said.
Mubarak, a former air force commander, vowed not to flee the country.
"This is my dear homeland ... I have lived in it; I fought for it and defended its soil, sovereignty and interests. On its soil I will die," he said. "History will judge me and all of us.''
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Cairo's main square responded to Mubarak's announcement by chanting "Leave now!" They're part of what organizers called a "march of a million people" to demand Mubarak's removal from power.
One of those protesters, who gave his name only as Yasin, told All Things Considered co-host Michele Norris that he was not surprised by the remarks.
"But nobody's satisfied and it's pretty clear what the demand is and that's for him to get out and I think we've really won," he said. "I think it's just a matter of time."
He said the protesters won't be satisfied until Mubarak is "tried for all of his crimes."
In Washington, President Obama said that he spoke to Mubarak after the speech and the Egyptian president "recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable."
"It is not the role of any other country to determine Egypt's leaders. Only the Egyptian people can do that," Obama said. "What is clear, and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak, is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now."
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro called Mubarak's remarks "an enormous step."
"He is ... bowing to pressure," she told All Things Considered host co-host Robert Siegel.
She said that her conversations with protesters had suggested there would be a split in opinion about Mubarak's speech.
"People I spoke to today, some of them said, 'We do need to have stability. We do need to have some continuity. As long as he leaves, that is enough.' Other people wanted him to leave right away," she said. "They do not want to have Hosni Mubarak for one single more day."
A State Department official said former U.S. Ambassador Frank Wisner, a longtime friend of Mubarak, met with the Egyptian president on Monday and delivered the U.S. message: that it was time for Mubarak to step down.
People carrying protest banners and Egyptian flags stood shoulder to shoulder in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square after passing through checkpoints guarded by protesters and the army. Effigies of Mubarak were hung from light posts.
The crowd — estimated to be anywhere from 250,000 to 2 million people — was by far the largest rally during a week of demonstrations and unrest. Earlier in the day, Garcia-Navarro reported that the protesters were galvanized by an army statement that people had a legitimate right to protest and by Vice President Omar Suleiman's remarks on state TV that the government would open a dialogue with the opposition.
"The mood is extremely ebullient. Everyone I'm speaking to says this is the beginning of the end of the Mubarak regime," Garcia-Navarro reported from the square. She added: "The military has behaved very calmly, and they are letting people assemble freely."
Soon after his speech, clashes erupted between protesters and government supporters in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, and gunshots were heard, according to footage by Al-Jazeera television.
Thousands of protesters also gathered in Suez, the southern province of Assiut, the city of Mansoura north of Cairo and Luxor, the southern city where some 5,000 people protested outside its iconic ancient temple on the east bank of the Nile.
Aftershocks In The Arab World
The loosely organized protest movement seized momentum from last month's popular uprising that toppled Tunisia's government and channeled it toward Mubarak's ouster. In a further sign of reverberation in the Arab world, Jordan's King Abdullah II abruptly fired his government Tuesday in the wake of street protests and asked a former prime minister to form a new Cabinet and launch immediate political reforms.
A pledge by the Palestinian government in the West Bank to hold local elections "as soon as possible" also appeared to be linked to the unrest in Egypt. The instability is of particular concern to the U.S. and to Israel, where a decades-long peace treaty with Cairo could be in jeopardy if Mubarak is forced out.
The protests have also become increasingly anti-American in recent days, with some demonstrators accusing Mubarak of being an agent of Israel and the U.S.
The U.S. ambassador in Cairo, Margaret Scobey, spoke with prominent democracy advocate and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei by telephone Tuesday, according to the embassy. ElBaradei has taken a key role with opposition groups in formulating the movement's demands for Mubarak to step down and allow a transitional government that would pave the way for free elections. There was no immediate word on what Scobey and ElBaradei discussed.
ElBaradei has rejected Suleiman's offer for a dialogue with "political forces" for constitutional and legislative reforms. In an interview with Al Arabiya television Tuesday, ElBaradei said there could be no negotiations until Mubarak leaves.
Tanks, Troops And Protesters
For days, army tanks and troops have surrounded the square, keeping the protests confined but doing nothing to stop people from joining.
Volunteers wearing tags reading "Security of the People" said they were watching for government infiltrators who might try to instigate violence.
"We are trying to keep things safe, that's it," one such volunteer, 23-year-old dentist Taher Benani, told NPR. "I mean, we caught a guy last night. ... He says he's looking for a job and looking for it at 3 a.m. I mean, come on. He had a switchblade." Benani said he handed the man over to soldiers.
The official death toll from the Egypt uprising stood at 97, with thousands injured, but reports from witnesses across the country indicate that the actual toll is far higher. The office of U.N. Human Rights chief Navi Pillay in Geneva has received unconfirmed reports that as many as 300 people may have been killed and more than 3,000 injured so far in anti-government protests.
Security officials said all roads and public transportation into Cairo were shut down. Train services nationwide were suspended for a second day, and all bus services between cities were halted.
Still, many from the provinces managed to make it to the square. Hamada Massoud, a 32-year-old a lawyer, said he and 50 others came in cars and minibuses from the impoverished province of Beni Sweif south of Cairo.
"Cairo today is all of Egypt," he said. "I want my son to have a better life and not suffer as much as I did. ... I want to feel like I chose my president."
Banks, schools and the stock market in the capital were closed for the third working day, making cash tight. Long lines formed outside bakeries as people tried to replenish their stores of bread, for which prices were spiraling.
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.
Many Foreigners Flee
Cairo's international airport remained a scene of chaos as thousands of foreigners sought to flee. EgyptAir staff scuffled with frantic passengers; food supplies were dwindling, and some policemen even demanded substantial bribes before allowing foreigners to board their planes.
The U.S. State Department said Tuesday that it had ordered all nonemergency U.S. government personnel and their families to leave Egypt. The agency said it will continue to assist American citizens seeking to leave the country, but warned that protests could disrupt flights out of Cairo's airport.
Some 30 representatives from opposition groups were meeting Tuesday to draw up a set of demands and to decide whether ElBaradei should lead them, according to a spokesman for al-Wasat, a moderate breakaway faction from the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to form an Islamist state in the Arab world's largest nation.
The more secular are deeply suspicious that the brotherhood aims to co-opt what they contend is a spontaneous popular movement. American officials have suggested they have similar fears. But brotherhood figures insist they are not seeking a leadership role.
With reporting from NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Cairo, and Lisa Schlein in Geneva. This story contains material from The Associated Press.