Cairo – In the fight to save his embattled regime from a popular revolt, U.S.-allied president Hosni Mubarak’s administration has severed the phone and Internet, rounded up journalists, closed banks and dispatched riot police to beat back protesters.
On Monday the government halted all trains throughout the country to prevent Egyptians in outlying provinces from joining throngs of protesters in Cairo who are planning an audacious march on the presidential compound Tuesday.
As Mubarak resorts to a measure deemed extraordinary even by the standards of Middle East autocrats, demonstrators pledged to keep up their rebellion until the president steps down.
“Each of you here today, bring three more tomorrow!” an activist yelled into a bullhorn in down town Cairo’s Tahrir square. “If you love Egypt, you will come!”
Mubarak reshuffled his cabinet Monday, keeping most of the old guard in palace, Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief who last week was named Mubarak’s first ever vice president, told Egyptians in televised remarks that the government will conduct talks with opposition groups and take immediate steps to address unemployment and other economic concerns. Suleiman didn’t mention other key issues such as emergency law, corruption or term limits for the president, who’s been in power for 30 years.
The thousands of anti-government protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir square immediately shouted down Mubarak’s cabinet appointments and focused on drumming up a million-strong crowd to march Tuesday to the presidential compound on the edge of the city.
Such a provocation leaves the Egyptian military in a bind. So far the army has cultivated its image as the protector of the Egyptian people, but blocking such a march would jeopardize its popularity. A senior defense ministry spokesman appeared on TV to reassure Egyptians that the military wouldn’t turn against the people, a statement the opposition interpreted as a green light for Tuesday’s risky trek to Mubarak’s doorstep.
“The military respects the protesters legitimate demands and has not and will not use force against them,” Major General Ismail Etman said.
“Your armed forces, who are aware of the legitimacy of your demands and are keen to assume their responsibility in protecting the nation and the citizens, affirms that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody,” he said.
Mubarak’s most notable appointment Monday was Mahmoud Wagdi, a retired police general, as the new interior minister. Wagdi replaces Habib el Adle, who’s widely detested by Egyptians for the heavy handedness of his security forces. But there were few other new faces; most of the ministers were the same close Mubarak associates, including Defense Minister Field Marshal Hussain Tantawi and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
When the news reached protesters in the square, there was laughter and incredulity. To many in the crowd, the reshuffling of the same men who ruled Egypt for three decades was a sham. The Mubarak era is over, they insisted, adding that they’re prepared to force him out if he doesn’t go in peace.
“He’s like a cornered rat, trying to stay in power. He’s trying everything, but people are just not buying it,” said Hala Shukrallah, a longtime anti-government activist who joined the protest at the square. “He has no legitimacy, no credibility, so whatever solution he comes up with is refused.”
Shukrallah, 55, a Coptic Christian, belongs to a Communist women’s group. She marched alongside bearded clerics from the Muslim Brotherhood — young men and women who carried the Egyptian flag and ordinary families with children in tow. The atmosphere was carnival-like, but under the close watch of soldiers.
“It’s amazing. It feels like all kinds of Egyptians are here, all ages all categories, said Dina el Kholy, 49, a member of an environmental organization.
For now, Egyptian protesters are united in the common goal of Mubarak’s ouster. If that can be achieved, however, opposition parties will begin jockeying to fill the power vacuum of a regime that once seemed immoveable. No one knows what kind of political order could emerge from this crisis — a chastened and reformed Mubarak administration, some sort of unity government representing the various opposition factions or leadership with Islamic leanings.
A loose coalition of opposition groups is conducting talks, activists said, and so far the only name put forth as a possible spokesman for the mass revolt is Nobel peace laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, the former United Nations nuclear chief, whose return to his native Egypt galvanized fellow dissidents.
ElBaradei has his own detractors, including many protesters who consider him aloof and unrepresentative of Egyptians because of his long tenure abroad. Others consider ElBaradei an acceptable interim figure if for no other reason than the lack of an alternative.
“We hope he can be looked at as a transitional figure,” Shukrallah said. “I think he, and others perhaps in some non-partisan coalition, can keep this unification.”
(McClatchy special correspondent Miret el Naggar contributed to this article.)