Thousands In Egypt Gather For 'Departure Friday'

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Egyptians pushing for political change and to end Hosni Mubarak's 30-year grip on power got a big turnout for a rally Friday in central Cairo. Opponents of the regime called it the authoritarian ruler's "departure Friday." But Mubarak supporters labeled it "a day of loyalty." Despite the massive, peaceful protest, the Mubarak government is showing no sign it's ready to give in to the demands that the president leave office immediately.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

There was a big turnout today in central Cairo for what protesters dubbed Departure Friday. Once again, they called for President Hosni Mubarak to leave office immediately. But Mubarak is showing no sign that he will give in to those demands.

Today's massive demonstration was peaceful, and NPR's Eric Westervelt was there to witness it.

ERIC WESTERVELT: In sharp contract to the last 48 hours, there was almost no violence today in and around Liberation Square between anti and pro-Mubarak factions. Today, the pro-regime forces had largely disappeared. Instead of running street battles, Molotov cocktails and gunfire, there were kids waving flags and men selling tea.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

WESTERVELT: The Mubarak government has repeatedly tried to paint the protesters as overwhelmingly Islamist or unrepresentative of Egyptian society. But once again, the giant, diverse crowd cut across Egypt's social spectrum. Families walked across a bridge over the Nile into the square. Bankers and lawyers stood beside imams, students and housewives.

Abdul Rahman(ph), who works for Egypt Air, arrived still wearing his nametag. He says the violence of the recent days spurred him to come here today.

Mr. ABDUL RAHMAN (Egypt Air): When I saw the people are - they say are injured and shooted(ph) by the Egyptian police, it makes me real sick. I couldn't get sleep. So I came just to come.

WESTERVELT: The army today widened the security perimeter in an effort to prevent more clashes. And in the highest-level government visit to the area since protests began, Egypt's defense minister, Mohammed Tantawi, briefly toured the square today. He held heated yet civil talks with some protesters. He told them to go home, as most of their demands had been met.

AAlso today, former Egyptian foreign minister, now Arab League President Amr Moussa joined the protesters. Some chanted: We want you as president. Twenty-seven-year-old Ahmed Badawy, a Cairo public relations executive, limped into the rally using a cane - an injury from a previous day's scuffle here. He says if President Mubarak was really as patriotic as he says he is, he would step down now and save the country more turmoil.

Mr. AHMED BADAWY (Cairo Public Relations Executive): And look at this incident, because this is taking the country to a new state of chaos. We don't know where it's going to end. We have some requirements. We need something tangible. We need some tangible guarantees that our requirements will be fulfilled some day.

WESTERVELT: Requirements, he says, for free and fair elections, freedom of expression, and an end to police-state repression.

Yesterday, in an interview with ABC, President Mubarak said that if he leaves now, the country will descend into chaos and Islamists could take over. Forty-three-year-old Cairo investment banker Sherif Massoud(ph) calls that argument desperate scare tactics by Mubarak.

Mr. SHERIF MASSOUD (Cairo Investment Banker): So he's using his last card now. He's telling the West, look, if I go, it's chaos. And if it's chaos in Egypt, it's chaos in the Middle East. And everybody that - has that ingrained in his head. He knows that this is complete (beep). He is going to leave, and we are not leaving. It's our country, and that's the end of it.

WESTERVELT: Behind the scenes, Western governments continue to apply pressure to accelerate a political transfer here. But in public, anyway, the Egyptian government shows no sign of giving in to protesters' core demand that Mubarak leave now. Indeed, today, Dr. Ibrahim Kamel, general secretary of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party said in a BBC interview that the silent majority here would soon rise up in support of the president and he blamed foreign media for what he called a conspiracy to destabilize his country.

(Soundbite of BBC interview)

Dr. IBRAHIM KAMEL (General Secretary, National Democratic Party): I am sorry to say that the Western media is conducting an ugly campaign against Egypt. And when the dust settles, I do hope that you will all be apologetic to the Egyptians.

(Soundbite of protesting)

WESTERVELT: But in Liberation Square, 26-year-old Marou Bringhi(ph) said the real apology due is to the Egyptian people from the ruling party for its corruption, crony capitalism and repression. She charged that the Mubarak regime has retarded Egypt's economic and political development for decades.

Ms. MAROU BRINGHI: The real conspiracy is by the NDP thugs, the thugs that they hire and they pay. The old regime is not just Hosni Mubarak. It's a very complicated network of patronage, and this is the network that must be brought down.

WESTERVELT: Demonstrators wishfully called today the Day of Departure. But as protesters again pledged to stay overnight in Tahrir Square, President Mubarak seemed no closer to leaving.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Cairo.

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