Jubilant crowds flood Cairo, escalating protests

CAIRO (AP) — More than a quarter-million people flooded Cairo’s main square Tuesday in a stunning and jubilant array of young and old, urban poor and middle class professionals, mounting by far the largest protest yet in a week of unrelenting demands for President Hosni Mubarak to leave after nearly 30 years in power.

The crowds — determined but peaceful — filled Tahrir, or Liberation, Square and spilled into nearby streets, among them people defying a government transportation shutdown to make their way from rural provinces. Protesters jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, with 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, danced, beat drums and chanted the anti-Mubarak slogan “Leave! Leave! Leave!” as military helicopters buzzed overhead. Organizers said the aim was to intensify marches to get the president out of power by Friday, and similar demonstrations erupted in at least five other cities around Egypt.

Soldiers at checkpoints set up at the entrances of the square did nothing to stop the crowds from entering.

The military promised on state TV Monday night that it would not fire on protesters answering a call for a million to demonstrate, a sign that army support for Mubarak may be unraveling as momentum builds for an extraordinary eruption of discontent and demands for democracy in the United States’ most important Arab ally.

“This is the end for him. It’s time,” said Musab Galal, a 23-year-old unemployed university graduate who came by minibus with his friends from the Nile Delta city of Menoufiya.

Mubarak, 82, would be the second Arab leader pushed from office by a popular uprising in the history of the modern Middle East, following the ouster last month of Tunisia’s president.

The movement to drive Mubarak out has been built on the work of online activists and fueled by deep frustration with an autocratic regime blamed for ignoring the needs of the poor and allowing corruption and official abuse to run rampant. After years of tight state control, protesters emboldened by the Tunisia unrest took to the streets on Jan. 25 and mounted a once-unimaginable series of protests across this nation of 80 million people — the region’s most populous country.

The chairman of the powerful U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John Kerry, gave public voice to what senior U.S. officials have said only privately in recent days: that Mubarak should “step aside gracefully to make way for a new political structure.”

The U.S. ambassador in Cairo, Margaret Scobey, spoke by telephone Tuesday with prominent democracy advocate Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the embassy said. ElBaradei has taken a key role with other opposition groups in formulating the movement’s demands for Mubarak to step down and allow a transitional government paving the way for free elections. There was no immediate word on what Scobey and ElBaradei discussed.

In an interview with Al-Arabiya television, ElBaradei rejected an offer late Monday by Vice President Omar Suleiman for a dialogue on enacting constitutional reforms. He said there could be no negotiations until Mubarak leaves.

Suleiman’s offer and other gestures by the regime have fallen flat. The Obama administration roundly rejected Mubarak’s appointment of a new government Monday afternoon that dropped his interior minister, who heads police forces and has been widely denounced by the protesters. State TV on Tuesday ran a statement by the new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, pleading with the public to “give a chance” to his government.

The United States, meanwhile, ordered non-essential U.S. government personnel and their families to leave Egypt in an indication of the deepening concern over the situation.

They join a wave of people rushing to flee the country — over 18,000 overwhelmed Cairo’s international airport and threw it into chaos. EgyptAir staff scuffled with frantic passengers, food supplies were dwindling and some policemen even demanded substantial bribes before allowing foreigners to board their planes.

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. Bread prices spiraled. An unprecedented shutdown of the Internet was in its fifth day.

The official death toll from the crisis stood at 97, with thousands injured, though reports from witnesses across the country indicated the actual toll was far higher.

But perhaps most startling was how peaceful protests have been in recent days, after the military replaced the police in keeping control and took a policy of letting the demonstrations continue.

Egypt’s army leadership has reassured the U.S. that the military does not intend to crack down on demonstrators, but instead is allowing the protesters to “wear themselves out,” according to a former U.S. official in contact with several top Egyptian army officers. The Egyptians use a colloquial saying to describe their strategy: A boiling pot with a tight lid will blow up the kitchen, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

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