Protesters, many moved by a Google executive’s tearful account of detention by Mubarak’s state security, poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square to pack a space that can take a quarter of a million people.
While the government refuses to budge on the demonstrators’ main demands, Vice President Omar Suleiman promised there would be no reprisals against the protesters for their campaign now entering a third week to eject Mubarak after 30 years in office.
But they dismissed his promises, accusing the government of playing for time, and swore they would not give up until the current “half revolution” was complete.
Wael Ghonim, the Google executive whose tears in a television interview appear to have boosted Tuesday’s turnout significantly, addressed the cheering crowd in a protest movement that has yet to produce a leader.
“You are the heroes. I am not a hero, you are the heroes,” said Ghonim, who had described on Monday night being blindfolded by state security during his 12 days in detention.
Activists say Ghonim was behind a Facebook group that helped to inspire the wave of protests. His interview also appears to have persuaded many Egyptians to side with the protests.
“Ghonim’s tears have moved millions and turned around the views of those who supported (Mubarak) staying,” website Masrawy.com wrote two hours after the interview. In that short span, 70,000 people signed up to Facebook pages supporting him.
Later Ghonim expressed his sorrow for the victims of the violence that has claimed an estimated 300 lives during the current wave of protests.
“My condolences to the fathers and mothers who lost sons and daughters who died for their dream,” he told Reuters. “I saw young people dying and now the president has a responsibility to see what the people demand,” he said, adding that these demands include Mubarak, 82, stepping down.
Google had launched a service to help Egyptians circumvent government restrictions on using the social network Twitter, enabling them to dial a telephone number and leave a voice mail that would then be sent on the online service.
The state news agency said 34 political prisoners had been released, the first to be set free since Mubarak promised reforms to quell the popular uprising.
Protesters completely filled Tahrir Square for the third time since the demonstrations began on January 25.
“I came here for the first time today because this cabinet is a failure, Mubarak is still meeting the same ugly faces,” said Afaf Naged, 71, a former member of the board of directors of the state-owned National Bank of Egypt. “He can’t believe it is over. He is a very stubborn man,” she said.
Vice President Suleiman, a long-time intelligence chief, has led talks this week with opposition groups including the Muslim Brotherhood — Mubarak’s sworn enemies.
In comments broadcast on state television, he said: “A clear road map has been put in place with a set timetable to realise the peaceful and organised transfer of power.”
So far the government has conceded little ground in the talks and Mubarak has promised only to stand down when his term expires in September.
Many in a country where about 40 percent of people live on less than $2 a day are desperate to return to work and normal life, even some of those wanting to oust Mubarak.
For Cairo cab driver Mustafa Fikri, the last thing on his mind was protesting against Mubarak’s rule. He couldn’t even be at his wife’s hospital bedside when she gave birth to their first son on Monday, as he was working.
Fikri cried for joy at the news but could not stop work and go to the hospital. “If I don’t work my family will starve. There isn’t any money left in the house.”
“HALF A REVOLUTION”
People on Tahrir Square were sceptical about the talks and suspicious of Mubarak’s motives. Youssef Hussein, a 52-year-old tourist driver from Aswan, held up a sign saying: “Dialogue prolongs the life of the regime and gives it the kiss of life. No dialogue until Mubarak leaves.”
“This dialogue is just on paper, it is just political manoeuvring to gain time,” said Sayed Hagaz from the Nile Delta.
Ayman Farag, a Cairo lawyer, said the protesters’ work was far from complete. “What has happened so far is only half a revolution and I hope it will continue to the end,” he said.
Suleiman promised that the harassment of protesters would end. “The president emphasised that Egypt’s youth deserve the appreciation of the nation and issued a directive to prevent them being pursued, harassed or having their right to freedom of expression taken away,” he said.
Tuesday’s rally and another called for Friday are tests of the protesters’ ability to maintain pressure on Mubarak.
Opposition figures have reported little progress in the talks with the government. The official news agency said Mubarak issued a decree ordering the establishment of a committee to study and propose legal and constitutional amendments.
The Muslim Brotherhood, by far the best-organised opposition group, said on Monday it could quit negotiations if protesters’ demands were not met, including the immediate exit of Mubarak.
The United States, adopting a cautious approach, has urged all sides to allow time for an “orderly transition” to a new political order in Egypt, for decades a strategic ally.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged other countries to carry out reforms, taking heed of Egypt, and of Tunisia whose president was overthrown last month.
“My hope would be that other governments in the region — seeing this spontaneous action in both Tunisia and in Egypt — will take measures to begin moving in a positive direction toward addressing the political and economic grievances of their people,” he told a news conference. Reuters