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Mubarak hangs on after mass protests in Egypt

February 05, 2011

Anti-government protestors shout anti-Mubarak slogans at Tahrir Square in Cairo. –Reuters Photo/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany

CAIRO: Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians marched peacefully in Cairo on Friday to demand an immediate end to Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, but there was no sign of the army or the president’s US allies forcing him out just yet.

With the unrest entering its 12th day, protesters camped out in Tahrir Square, the hub of demonstrations in the heart of Cairo, prepared on Saturday to wait him out.

“Mubarak must go, Mubarak must go” and “Hold your ground, God is with us,” someone shouted over a loud speaker, after a brief burst of heavy gunfire shortly before 2 am local time.

The origin of the gunfire was unclear and there were no reports of casualties. One protester said the army, which is separating pro-democracy supporters and Mubarak loyalists after violent clashes earlier this week, had fired in the air.

Television footage later showed people milling around but there was no sign of violence.

Mubarak said on Thursday Egypt faced chaos if he left now, setting up for what could be a long war of attrition between him and protesters who say they will not give up until he resigns.

But some Egyptians are keen to return to normal after the nationwide unrest which has crippled the economy. Banks were due to reopen on Sunday, the start of the week in the Middle East, and the stock market on Monday.

The United States has also been pressing the 82-year-old Mubarak to begin a transfer of power and pave the way for democracy in a country which has been dominated by the military since it toppled the monarchy in 1952.

But seeking to deflect criticism of interference in Egypt’s affairs, Obama said on Friday: “The future of Egypt will be determined by its people.”

Seeking A Solution

Egypt’s vice president will meet a group of prominent figures on Saturday to examine a proposed solution to the country’s crisis in which he would assume the president’s powers for an interim period, one of the group said.

Diaa Rashwan told Reuters he and others had been invited to see Vice President Omar Suleiman, an ex-intelligence chief, to discuss an article of the constitution covering Mubarak handing powers to his deputy.

This solution could allow Mubarak to serve out his fifth term as a figurehead and end his tenure with some dignity.

Many protesters however say they want a real transfer of power, rather than to see Mubarak to be replaced by another ruler backed by the military. Obama has also called for “meaningful” change.

On Friday, people in cities across Egypt — from Suez, Ismailia and Port Said, east of Cairo, to Mansoura, Damanhour and Qalyoubiaas in the Nile Delta in the north, to Aswan in the south — demonstrated in what was billed a “Day of Departure”.

Tahrir Square was crammed with people chanting “We’re not leaving, You are leaving!” waving Egyptian flags and singing the national anthem, with a beefed-up military presence keeping pro-Mubarak activists out to prevent any bloodshed.

“Game over” said one banner, in English for the benefit of international television channels beaming out live coverage.

Effigies of Mubarak hanging by the neck dangled over the square.

The mood was festive as secular, professionals and pious, poorer, members of the mass Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood, mingled, sang and chanted in the square.

Turnout nationwide seemed short of the more than one million seen on Tuesday. Mubarak went on television that night to tell Egyptians he would leave office in September.

Despite mass street protests and concessions by government, Mubarak’s fate now lies as much in deals struck among generals keen to retain influence and Western officials anxious not to see Egypt slide into chaos or be taken over by Islamists.

Egypt has been a US ally throughout Mubarak’s rule and it is strategically vital to American interests because of its peace treaty with Israel, its control of the Suez Canal and its opposition to militant Islam.

The United Nations estimates 300 people have died in the unrest, inspired in part by protests in Tunisia which forced veteran strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee last month and which have since spread to other parts of the Middle East.