CAIRO—A new rally by nearly 100,000 protesters in central Cairo and behind-the-scenes diplomacy from the Obama administration piled more pressure on President Hosni Mubarak on Friday to make a swift exit from office and allow a temporary government to embark on an immediate path toward democracy.
Two days of wild clashes in central Cairo between protesters and regime supporters that killed 11 people this week seemed to have pushed the United States to the conclusion that an Egypt with Mubarak at the helm is potentially more unstable than one without him.
For the first time in the 11-day-old wave of protests, varying scenarios were being put forward by two opposing camps in Egypt and by the United States over how to usher the country into a post-Mubarak era after nearly 30 years of his authoritarian rule.
President Barack Obama’s administration has made a judgment that Mubarak has to go soon if the crisis is to end peacefully, and it is in talks with Egyptian officials over the transition, according to U.S. officials.
Under one U.S. proposal, the 82-year-old Mubarak would step down and hand power to a military-backed temporary government headed by his newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks. The government would prepare for free and fair elections later this year.
That would mesh in some ways with the demands of the protesters. But one significant difference was the timetable.
Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, one of the leaders of the protesters, criticized the government’s plan to reform the constitution within five months so presidential elections can be held on schedule in September. He said that was too rushed and indicated the regime was not serious about real change.
It would take a full year under a transitional government, he said, to sufficiently loosen the ruling party’s entrenched monopoly on Egypt’s politics before a truly election to be held. The ruling party has squeezed out almost all rivals with a grip solidified in vote fraud, election rules tilted in its favor, widespread patronage, emergency laws and domination of media.
“People are not stupid ... This is not really a genuine desire to go for reform,” ElBaradei said of the government’s September timeframe. He said Mubarak must “hear the clear voice coming from the people and leave in dignity.”
But Mubarak has staunchly refused to step down, and his prime minister said Friday that stance is “unlikely” to change.
Mubarak insists he must serve out the rest of his term until September to ensure stability. He warned in an interview with ABC News that chaos would ensue if he leaves.
“You don’t understand the Egyptian culture and what would happen if I step down now,” he said he told Obama.
Protesters vow to keep going until he does, and on Friday they seemed flush with a sense of victory and recharged determination after repelling pro-regime rioters who attacked the square on Wednesday, sparking 48 hours of mayhem and pitched battles. Nearly 100,000 people packed downtown Cairo’s Tahrir, or Liberation, Square on Friday in the biggest protest in days demanding Mubarak go now.
Thousands including families with children flowed over bridges across the Nile into Tahrir, a sign that the movement was not intimidated after fending off everything thrown at them by Mubarak supporters — storms of hurled concrete, metal rebar and firebombs, charges by whip-wielding fighters on horses and camels and automatic gunfire barrages.
The ruling National Democratic Party, accused by protesters of organizing the attack, called on supporters Friday to “adhere to a truce and not enter confrontations with others,” but it denied any role in the assault. Protesters says the regime organized the force using police in civilian clothes and paid thugs.
Suleiman and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq promised no action would be taken against the protest camp. A curfew in place for a week was eased Friday, now running from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. instead of 5 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Protesters in the square held up signs reading “Now!” and labeled the rally “the Friday of departure,” in hopes it would be the day Mubarak goes. At one point, the crowd seemed to be a field of waving Egyptian red-black-and-white flags.
Thousands prostrated themselves in the noon Muslim prayers then — immediately after uttering the prayer’s concluding “God’s peace and blessings be upon you” — they launched into chants of “Leave! Leave! Leave!” A man was lifted in his wheelchair over the heads of the crowd and he pumped his arms in the air.
Soldiers at the square’s entrances checked IDs to ensure those passing inside were not police in civilian clothes or ruling party members and performed body searches, a sign that Egypt’s most powerful institution was sanctioning the demonstration. The protesters themselves set up another ring of checks inside the army cordon.