Huge crowds turn out for Mubarak 'departure day'

4th February 2011, Comments 0 comments

Egyptian demonstrators held a massive "departure day" show of force on Friday aimed at ousting President Hosni Mubarak as both the United States and Europe indicated the time has come for him to step down.

Tens of thousands filled Cairo's central Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the epicentre of 11 straight days of protests that have shaken the pillars of Mubarak's three-decade rule, on the Muslim day of rest and weekly prayers.

Mubarak said in an interview late on Thursday that he would like to quit but feared that chaos would result.

The New York Times reported that Washington has been pushing proposals for Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's veteran intelligence chief and now vice president, to head a transitional government.

The transition would begin a process of reform to pave the way for elections scheduled in September.

The White House took issue with aspects of the report, but did not deny it outright, and its response hinted that the United States may be studying a range of options to prod Mubarak to go and defuse the confrontation in Cairo.

At a summit in Brussels, meanwhile, the European Union's 27 leaders said Egypt's "transition process must start now" and condemned this week's violence, while issuing a veiled threat of suspending aid.

But Russia called UN chief Ban Ki-moon's calls for change in Egypt overtly political.

Without calling for Mubarak to leave office, Ban said on Friday that "a process of peaceful and orderly transition leading to free and fair elections" must start as soon as possible.

Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters the role of the United Nations "does not include giving political advice to sovereign states."

The atmosphere in the square on Friday was more festive and relaxed than on the previous two days when deadly clashes erupted, with authorities vowing the army would not use force and instead setting up razor barriers to keep rival demonstrators apart.

In isolated violence, however, Al-Jazeera news channel which ran round-the-clock coverage of the uprising after it erupted on January 25 said a "gang of thugs" had ransacked its Cairo offices.

At one end of the Tahrir Square epicentre of the revolt, the faithful prayed out in the open on Friday, beneath two traffic lights from each of which hung an effigy of Mubarak.

"We were born free and we shall live free," prayer leader Khaled al-Marakbi said in his sermon. "I ask of you patience until victory."

Worshippers used newspapers, banners and even Egyptian flags as impromptu prayer mats, reciting the traditional prayer for the dead in memory of the more than 300 people killed -- according to UN figures -- since the protests began, sending shock waves around the world.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei fanned Western concerns about the turmoil in their key ally Egypt, calling on its people to rise up and create an Islamic state.

In Tahrir Square, the prayer leader and many in the vast open-air congregation wept, still shaken by the clashes with stone-throwing Mubarak supporters that left at least eight people dead and more than 800 hurt on Wednesday and Thursday, drawing a stern rebuke from Washington.

A new pro-government rally took place at the same time in the upscale Mohandeseen neighbourhood of the capital, but it was attended by dozens rather than the tens of thousands in Tahrir Square.

Defence Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi -- regarded by Washington as a key plank of any post-Mubarak administration -- visited the square to appeal to demonstrators to give up their protest in the light of Mubarak's pledge earlier this week not to seek re-election in September.

"The man (Mubarak) told you he won't stand again," Tantawi told the protesters flanked by troops.

He urged opposition leaders, including the supreme guide of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, to join talks with the government on political transition.

In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Badie reiterated the opposition's position that there could be no talks until Mubarak stepped down.

"We stand with all the political forces supporting dialogue with whoever wants to implement reforms in the country after the departure of this unjust, corrupt tyrant," he told the Qatar-based satellite channel.

In his first interview since the protests erupted, Mubarak on Thursday blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the violence of recent days, ABC television's Christiane Amanpour reported.

The veteran leader was "fed up with being president and would like to leave office now, but cannot, he says, for fear that the country would sink into chaos," Amanpour said.

"He told me that he is troubled by the violence we have seen in Tahrir Square over the last few days but that his government is not responsible for it. Instead, he blamed the Muslim Brotherhood."

Mubarak's onetime foreign minister, Arab League chief Amr Mussa, said he doubted his former boss would leave any time soon.

"I do not think he will leave. I think he will stay until the end of August," Mussa told France's Europe 1 radio before himself later venturing out into Tahrir Square in what his office described as a "calming gesture."

State news agency MENA on Friday, amid charges of corruption under the Mubarak regime, said the prosecutor-general had barred former trade minister Rashid Mohammed Rashid from leaving the country and frozen his bank accounts.

Back on the streets, demonstrations for Mubarak's departure were also held in a raft of provincial cities.

In Egypt's second city Alexandria, tens of thousands gathered in the city centre and Brotherhood official Sobhi Saleh said tens of thousands more were marching in from various suburbs.

© 2011 AFP

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