Cairo, Egypt – Opposition figure Mohammed ElBaradei emerged from house arrest late Sunday to join throngs of protesters in central Cairo, echoing their demand that U.S.-allied President Hosni Mubarak resign and establishing himself as the face of Egypt’s six-day pro-democracy uprising.
The dramatic nighttime appearance by ElBaradei — the Nobel Peace Prize winner who returned to Egypt last week after the protests began — suddenly placed him at the forefront of a leaderless grassroots revolt that’s brought one of the Arab world’s longest and most entrenched dictatorships to the brink of collapse.
As the banned Muslim Brotherhood and other Egyptian opposition groups said they’d support ElBaradei in negotiations over a possible new government, President Barack Obama called allies and expressed support for “an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people,” according to a White House statement.
Mubarak’s days appeared to be numbered, although the 82-year-old leader showed no obvious signs that he’d give up the office he’s held for nearly three decades. F-16 fighter jets buzzed protesters in downtown Cairo in a show of intimidation, while news services reported that the Egyptian army was sending reinforcements and state television said that the police, who have been absent from the streets since Friday, would resume patrols.
Cairo remained an anxious battle zone: long lines at fuel pumps, markets plucked clean of bread and other staples, shops boarded up or looted, banks and restaurants shuttered. Neighborhood watch groups armed themselves against the marauding gangs that many Egyptians thought had been unleashed by the hated Interior Ministry to sow chaos. Dozens of prisoners had reportedly escaped or been let free from jails.
The U.S. Embassy was making arrangements to evacuate American citizens to “safe haven locations in Europe” starting Monday and authorized non-emergency staff and the relatives of diplomats to leave Egypt. The State Department urged Americans to “consider leaving as soon as they can safely do so.”
The death toll in the protests rose to at least 150, according to Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite network whose live broadcasts of Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square have provided the world with a front-row seat to the revolt — and prompted authorities to close its Cairo bureau Sunday. The network continued to broadcast via satellite, however.
Yet tens of thousands of Egyptians defied fear and the third day of a nationwide curfew to mass again after nightfall in Tahrir Square. ElBaradei, the bookish former head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, appeared about 7 p.m. and said through a bullhorn to a crowd that huddled around him: “Today, each of us is a different Egyptian.”
“We have restored our rights, we have restored our freedoms. What have begun cannot be reversed,” he said. “We have a key demand: for the regime to step down and to start a new era.”
Just days ago, even after a similar uprising had toppled Tunisia’s dictatorial leader, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, a post-Mubarak scenario in Egypt was unthinkable. The majority of Egypt’s roughly 80 million citizens have never known any other leader, and chronic complaints about political repression, low wages, corruption and nepotism — he’d been grooming his son, Gamal, to succeed him — had never seriously challenged a regime that enjoyed $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid, most of it for the military.
On the streets of the capital Sunday, however, Egyptians had begun to refer to Mubarak as “the ex-president.”
Opposition groups appeared to be coalescing around ElBaradei as the face of the uprising for now. He secured the backing of the largest opposition organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that Mubarak had effectively banned, although many Egyptians criticize him as a latecomer who joined the protest movement after it began or say he doesn’t represent ordinary citizens.
He and another prominent dissident, Ayman Nour, were named to a 10-member committee formed Sunday by the a loose grouping of opposition factions, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to negotiate with the regime and press for Mubarak’s resignation.
“We are not negotiating with President Mubarak, since our key demand is to have him stepping down,” Nour told Al Jazeera English. “We will negotiate with the army . . . and we will also negotiate with other political parties in order to have a national reconciliation government.”
Nour denied that the committee was asking the army to stage a coup against Mubarak, saying it wanted the military to “defend and safeguard the citizens.”
On Saturday, Mubarak named former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as his first-ever vice president and Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force chief of staff, as the new prime minister, fueling speculation that he’s preparing to hand over power to his closest allies.
The news did nothing to deter the protesters, who on Sunday continued to chant, “Mubarak, you must leave.”
Speaking on CNN, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “What we’re trying to do is to help clear the air so that those who remain in power, starting with President Mubarak, with his new vice president, with the new prime minister, will begin a process of reaching out, of creating a dialogue that will bring in peaceful activists and representatives of civil society to . . . plan a way forward that will meet the legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people.”
Clinton’s remarks showed that the Obama administration understands that Mubarak’s time is running out, said Nader Hashemi of the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.
“There seems to be a shift in U.S. policy where the Egyptian people are given respect and their right to determine their future is finally being acknowledged by the American government,” he said.
Earlier Sunday, there was almost no police presence on the streets, and military tanks stayed parked in Tahrir Square and other key neighborhoods without confronting protesters. Authorities said that the nationwide curfew would be extended for a fourth day Monday, and would begin an hour earlier, at 3 p.m. Cairo time (7 a.m. in Washington).
As dusk fell over Cairo, two army tanks rolled through a residential neighborhood in Dokki, a middle-class western suburb where residents had armed themselves with kitchen knives the night before to guard against looters. The residents welcomed the tanks.
In the eastern port city of Suez, the scene of one of the biggest clashes of the revolt on Friday, streets remained strewn with rubble and the army was out in force, guarding the main government buildings, reported Joe Stork, the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch.
The group said that hospitals in Cairo and Alexandria needed blood donations.
(Allam reported from Cairo, Bengali from Baghdad. McClatchy special correspondent Miret el Naggar in Cairo and Erika Bolstad and Jonathan S. Landay in Washington contributed to this article.)