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01 December 2023

Egypt protests mount despite regime threats

Opposition supporters gather mid-afternoon in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Egyptians counted the economic cost of more than two weeks of turmoil on Wednesday as re-invigorated protesters flocked again to Cairo's Tahrir Square to demand President Hosni Mubarak quit immediately. (REUTERS)


Egyptian protesters defied warnings from Hosni Mubarak's regime that their campaign could plunge Egypt into chaos and marched on parliament on Wednesday, amid reports of deadly violence in the remote south.

Around a thousand marched on parliament to demand its members' resignation. The protest was peaceful, and government troops secured the building, but the marchers swore they would not leave until the legislature was dissolved.

The night before they had been joined by several hundred thousand supporters for the biggest night of rallies yet in the two-week-old drive to topple their autocratic president and replace his 30-year-old regime.

"I will keep on coming until he goes away," said May Abdelwareth, who was spending her third day in Cairo's Tahrir Square. "I am doing this for myself and for my children, so they don't have to live like this."

Elsewhere, volunteers were at work building portable toilets, indicating the protesters have no intention of leaving the "liberated" square, now a sprawling tent city with sound stages, flag vendors and a mobile phone-charging station.

In a sign the protests were widening beyond Cairo, unrest gripped the remote oasis of Kharga, where at least three people were killed and 100 wounded when security forces opened fire on demonstrators, a security official told AFP.

Egypt's 82-year-old leader has charged his longtime intelligence chief, now vice president, Omar Suleiman with drawing selected opposition groups into negotiations on democratic reform before elections due in September.

Some parties have joined the talks, but the crowds in Tahrir insist that Mubarak must go before they will halt the protest. Suleiman, however, warns that the transition must be slow and orderly if there is not to be chaos.

"A clear road map has been put in place with a set timetable to realise a peaceful and organised transfer of power," he said on state television on Tuesday.

But he later warned Egyptian newspaper editors that "the second, alternative way, would be a coup -- and we want to avoid that -- meaning uncalculated and hasty steps that produce more irrationality," the state MENA news agency reported.

Protesters in Tahrir said they were unmoved by Suleiman's remarks and vowed to remain in the square until their demands were met.

"He is acting as they've been acting with us for 30 years. The same talk, the same lies," said Neven al-Sergany, a 44-year-old teacher. I don't think I will leave. The people here are so determined."

The Muslim Brotherhood, the country's best organised opposition group despite a half century of illegality, meanwhile moved to reassure Western and other observers who fear an Islamist takeover should Mubarak's regime be toppled.

"The Muslim Brotherhood does not seek power. We do not want to participate at the moment," senior leader Mohammed Mursi told reporters, adding that the movement would not field a presidential candidate.

The United States is watching events in the most populous Arab country with great concern, hoping the transition to elected rule can take place without a descent into violence, or an Islamist or military takeover.

On Tuesday, US Vice President Joe Biden urged "immediate" and "irreversible" political change in a phone call to Suleiman, including a wider national dialogue with the opposition, a White House statement said.

He also renewed US calls for Egypt to immediately rescind a decades-old state of emergency, which was renewed for two years last May and which Washington says gives the government sweeping powers to restrict basic freedoms.

The presence of the Brotherhood at the protests has caused some in Western capitals to fear the movement might be hijacked by Islamists, but the demonstrators insist their goal is free elections open to all.

Suleiman has begun meeting representatives of some opposition parties -- including the Brotherhood, but not some of the street protest groups -- to draw up plans for a democratic transition.

But opposition groups say any vote to replace Mubarak would not be fair under Egypt's current constitution, which heavily favours the ruling party.

An Iraqi Al-Qaeda front group -- the Islamic State of Iraq -- meanwhile urged Egyptians to turn their backs on the "ignorant deceiving ways" of secularism, democracy and "rotten pagan nationalism."

Instead, it argued, they should launch a jihad for an Islamic state -- an idea that has long been rejected out of hand by the opposition movement, a motley coalition of leftists, secularists, Islamists and liberals.

"We are all Egyptians, Christian and Muslim,  said Abdelrahman Sami, a 24-year-old doctor who has been sleeping in Tahrir Square.

"Anybody who says differently is trying to divide us, to make us scared of one another. That's the regime's idea."