Egypt's 'Friday Of Departure' Rally: Massive, But Calm

Egyptian soldiers stand behind barbed wire at the entrance of Cairo's Tahrir Square as anti-government demonstrators gather Friday. i i

Egyptian soldiers stand behind barbed wire at the entrance of Cairo's Tahrir Square as anti-government demonstrators gather Friday. Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
Egyptian soldiers stand behind barbed wire at the entrance of Cairo's Tahrir Square as anti-government demonstrators gather Friday.

Egyptian soldiers stand behind barbed wire at the entrance of Cairo's Tahrir Square as anti-government demonstrators gather Friday.

Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters massed again in central Cairo for what organizers billed as a "Friday of Departure." After two days of clashes with supporters of the regime, their goal remained the same: Force out President Hosni Mubarak.

The crowd that filled Tahrir Square for an 11th day of demonstrations was the biggest since Tuesday. One man sitting in a wheelchair was lifted — wheelchair and all — over the heads of the demonstrators, and he pumped his arms in the air. Thousands prostrated themselves in noon prayers. And immediately after uttering the prayer's concluding "God's peace and blessings be upon you," they began chanting their message to Mubarak: "Leave! Leave! Leave!"

The square was mostly calm Friday after 48 hours of violence between pro-and anti-Mubarak forces who battled with paving stones and shields fashioned out of sheet metal from a construction site. Doctors at the scene said at least 10 people were killed and more than 800 wounded in the fighting. Gangs backing Mubarak also attacked some journalists and human-rights activists across Cairo on Thursday; others were detained by soldiers.

An Egyptian reporter who was shot during clashes a week ago died of his wounds Friday, his employer said, in the first reported death of a journalist in the crisis.

Anti-government demonstrators gather Friday in Tahrir Square in Cairo. i i

Anti-government demonstrators gather Friday in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Sebastian Scheiner/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Anti-government demonstrators gather Friday in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Anti-government demonstrators gather Friday in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP

A Largely Peaceful Day

Soldiers from the army, which has ringed the square with barbed wire and armored personnel carriers, helped check IDs and perform body searches Friday to make sure weapons were kept out of the area. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reported that people were required to pass through multiple checkpoints to enter the square.

"They are very, very thorough," said Garcia-Navarro, adding that the protesters are "very serious about wanting their protests to be peaceful and will only fight if they are attacked."

Many of the people who poured into Tahrir Square brought fresh bread, water, fruit and other supplies with them. Makeshift clinics had been set up in the entranceways of stores, including a KFC.

Protesters were hopeful that the "size and peaceful nature of the rally sends a clear signal to Mubarak and the rest of the world," NPR's Eric Westervelt reported from the square.

But after the violence of the past two days, anti-government demonstrators — some wearing hard hats — were taking no chances.

"In one area, there's a catapult. In another area, they're using it as an armory, stashing rocks and putting them into containers so that they'll have stuff ready in case clashes break out again," Garcia-Navarro said.

Ahmed Ibrahim, a 32-year-old engineer, told NPR that the preparations were for defense against Mubarak's "criminals." He dismissed rumors that the protesters planned to march to the presidential palace to demand the removal of Mubarak.

"They want us to move from the square, but we will not do that," he said.

In the afternoon, a group of Mubarak supporters gathered in a square several blocks away and tried to move on Tahrir, banging with sticks on metal fences to raise an intimidating clamor. But protesters throwing rocks pushed them back.

The Army's Key Role

Egyptian Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi and senior army officials visited the square Friday morning in what many anti-Mubarak protesters interpreted as a tacit endorsement of their movement.

"The army and people are united," many in the crowd chanted after an announcement over loudspeakers that the minister was in the square.

The army's sympathy — whether to the Mubarak regime or to the protesters — has been a wild card in protests, Garcia-Navarro said. Soldiers stood aside as pro-government gangs attacked the protesters, only to step between the rival factions later in an apparent effort to protect them.

The pro-Mubarak crowds that have attacked demonstrators and foreign journalists did not have a visible presence Friday.

Ayman Nour, a former presidential candidate and member of a new committee formed to conduct negotiations on the protesters' behalf, said he hopes the demonstration "leads to Mubarak's departure."

Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt with a heavy hand for three decades, insists he will serve out the remaining seven months of his presidential term. In an interview with ABC News on Thursday, Mubarak said he wants to step down but that doing so would spark chaos, and he vowed not to leave Egypt.

Soldiers search anti-government protesters heading to Friday rallies in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. i i

Soldiers search anti-government protesters heading to Friday rallies in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. Manoocher Deghati/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Manoocher Deghati/AP
Soldiers search anti-government protesters heading to Friday rallies in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo.

Soldiers search anti-government protesters heading to Friday rallies in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo.

Manoocher Deghati/AP

Ibrahim Kamel, general secretary of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, told the BBC on Friday that "the silent majority" would soon rise up in support of the president. He blamed foreign media for what he called a conspiracy to destabilize his country.

"I am sorry to say that the Western media is conducting an ugly campaign against Egypt," he said. "And when the dust settles, I do hope that you will all be apologetic to the Egyptians."

Pressure From Afar

U.S. and European officials have stepped up pressure for Mubarak to step down immediately. The Obama administration said it was in talks with top Egyptian officials about the possibility of Mubarak resigning and an interim government forming before free and fair elections this year.

In a joint statement Friday, 27 European Union leaders called on all parties in Egypt to "show restraint and avoid further violence and begin an orderly transition to a broad-based government."

President Obama talked Friday about Egypt during a joint appearance with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, again saying the transition process "should begin now" and should include opposition voices.

Obama said at this point the momentum for change in Egypt is unstoppable.

"In light of what's happened over the last two weeks, going back to the old ways is not going to work," he said. "Suppression is not going to work. Engaging in violence is not going to work. Attempting to shut down information flows is not going to work."

Prominent Egyptian reform advocate Mohamed ElBaradei has said Mubarak should step down now. The Nobel Peace laureate, who has become one of the leaders of Egypt's protest movement, said the Egyptian president "should hear the clear voice coming from the people and leave in dignity."

Speaking to journalists at a news conference on Friday, ElBaradei said there should be a yearlong transition to democracy under a temporary constitution with a presidential council of several people, including a military representative. During that year, a permanent constitution would be drawn up to guarantee freedom to form political parties — currently highly restricted — and other freedoms, and then elections could be held.

"The quicker [Mubarak] leaves in dignity the better it is for everybody," ElBaradei said.

Egypt After Mubarak

But the question of what would follow a Mubarak regime has worried many both inside and outside Egypt. Garcia-Navarro said one such group is Coptic Christians, who have flourished under Mubarak in an otherwise predominantly Muslim country.

In a possible effort to up the ante should the current regime edge toward a quick collapse, Vice President Omar Suleiman said Thursday that he had invited the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood into negotiations over Egypt's future. The Islamist organization is officially outlawed and has been ruthlessly suppressed by Mubarak.

After keeping a low profile for the first several days of protests, members of the brotherhood — distinguishable by their close-cropped beards — have begun to dominate the protesters' front lines, often lining up to pray for "victory or martyrdom" before throwing themselves into the fray, hurling stones, sticks and firebombs at the attackers while shouting, "God is great."

The editor of the Muslim Brotherhood's website told the AP that police stormed its office Friday morning and arrested 10 to 15 of its journalists. Abdel Galil el-Sharnoubi said the website was also being blocked.

The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera news agency, whose coverage is widely viewed in the Arab world and elsewhere, said Friday that its office in Cairo also had been stormed by "gangs of thugs."

The news agency said in a statement that the attack on its operations "appears to be the latest attempt by the Egyptian regime or its supporters to hinder Al-Jazeera's coverage of events in the country." Al-Jazeera's Egyptian bureau has been forcibly closed and several of its reporters briefly detained.

President Obama called those actions and others against journalists "unacceptable." His press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said the U.S. continues to receive reports of a "very systematic targeting of journalists" and said the actions "speak volumes about the seriousness with which the government looks at an orderly transition."

NPR's Corey Flintoff, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and Eric Westervelt reported from Cairo for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.

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