Cyber-activist's release galvanises Egypt revolt
Hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square on Tuesday, hailing a freed cyber activist as their revolt against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak raged into a third week.
The embattled strongman took a step earlier in the day towards democratic reform, authorising a committee to pursue constitutional change, a gesture that failed to appease the crowds who noisily demanded his immediate overthrow.
Protesters who arrived in the square, past a cordon of troops and tanks that searched them for weapons but made no attempt to halt the demonstration, were greeted by huge new posters of the "martyrs" of their revolt.
Many also carried the symbols of the Internet social networks Facebook and Twitter, which have become vital mobilising tools for the opposition thanks to online campaigners like Google executive Wael Ghonim.
Ghonim has become a hero to many in the movement, having started one of its most popular Facebook sites and been detained by the regime and held blindfolded for 12 days following a day of protest on January 27.
"I'm not a hero, you are the heroes, you're the ones who stayed on this square," Ghonim told the crowd that surged around him, many weeping, clapping and shouting: "Long live Egypt, long live Egypt!"
"You must insist that your demands are met. For our martyrs, we must insist," he said, before being cut off by chants from the crowd of: "We want the regime to fall."
For its part, the regime issued a decree forming a committee to oversee constitutional changes ahead of elections due later this year.
"The president welcomed the national consensus, confirming we are on the right path to getting out of the current crisis," said Vice President Omar Suleiman, whom many now see as the effective power behind the throne.
"A clear road map has been put in place with a set timetable to realise a peaceful and organised transfer of power," he promised, in a televised address.
The vice president has begun meeting representatives of some opposition parties -- including the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, but not some of the street protest groups -- to draw up plans for a democratic transition.
Mubarak has promised not to stand for re-election in September, but opposition groups say any vote to replace the 82-year-old strongman would not be fair under Egypt's current constitution.
While larger crowds gather daily to protest, several thousand occupy Tahrir Square day and night, sleeping under tents or blankets at the foot of army tanks.
"Patriotic songs about the country used to sound exaggerated, but we own the country now," said 34-year-old doctor Issam Shebana, who came back from Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates to staff a makeshift clinic in the square.
"Yesterday, one man in his 60s said: 'We were cowards. We kept quiet all these years, but you've done it.' It's inspiring. It's a rebirth," he said. "I never thought I'd sleep on asphalt with rain on my face and feel happy."
On Monday, Mubarak tried to buy time, pledging to raise public sector wages by 15 percent and ordering a probe into the recent deadly violence that has left at least 300 people dead in the course of 15 days of protest.
"They announced a pay increase. They are trying to fool us. This is a political bribe to silence people," snorted 36-year-old demonstrator Mohammed Nizar as he queued patiently to join the crowds in Tahrir.
There have been reports Mubarak could seek medical leave in Germany, but Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said: "I am not currently aware of such a request and therefore see no reason ... to contribute to the speculation."
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said it was "critical" the Egyptian government fulfil its promises and move ahead with an orderly democratic transition after days of mass street protests.
Western capitals have generally stopped short of calling for Mubarak to go, urging instead cautious reforms, but French Defence Minister Alain Juppe said it was now time to "bet on the emergence of democratic forces".
© 2011 AFP