Egypt's Reform Efforts Greeted By Even Bigger Protest

Anti-government supporters swarmed Cairo's Tahrir Square on Tuesday for the 15th consecutive day of opposition protests. i i

Anti-government supporters swarmed Cairo's Tahrir Square on Tuesday for the 15th consecutive day of opposition protests. Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
Anti-government supporters swarmed Cairo's Tahrir Square on Tuesday for the 15th consecutive day of opposition protests.

Anti-government supporters swarmed Cairo's Tahrir Square on Tuesday for the 15th consecutive day of opposition protests.

Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

The standoff between Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and anti-government demonstrators entered a third week Tuesday with another massive protest in Cairo, even as Vice President Omar Suleiman warned "we can't put up with" continued protests for a long time.

The size and scope of the rally in Tahrir Square — one of the largest to date — signaled that the anti-government movement is far from spent. People lined up for several city blocks to pass through a single security entrance and enter the square, which overflowed with tens of thousands of protesters. Thousands more gathered for a second protest around the Parliament building in Cairo.

Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim (second from left) speaks to the thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square. i i

Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim (second from left) speaks to the thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square. Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim (second from left) speaks to the thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square.

Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim (second from left) speaks to the thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square.

Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

Hardcore demonstrators have maintained what amounts to a tent-filled protest camp in the square for days, unmoved by a series of government concessions aimed at diffusing public anger.

Al-Jazeera television also reported a large demonstration in Alexandria, and an NPR correspondent witnessed a protest in Suez.

Meanwhile, Egypt's newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, told the state news agency MENA that the crisis must end soon. He said there will be "no ending of the regime" and no immediate departure for President Hosni Mubarak.

Suleiman said the regime wants dialogue to resolve protesters' demands for democratic reform.

"We don't want to deal with Egyptian society with police tools," he said.

First Concrete Step Toward Reform

Earlier Tuesday, Suleiman said the government would establish a committee to recommend constitutional changes that would relax presidential eligibility rules and impose term limits. The two committees would start working immediately, but Suleiman did not give details about who would sit on the panels or how they would be chosen.

The government also ordered a probe into clashes last week between the protesters and supporters of the president. The committee would refer its findings to the attorney general, Suleiman said.

"The youth of Egypt deserve national appreciation," he quoted the president as saying. "They should not be detained, harassed or denied their freedom of expression."

The creation of the panel was the first concrete step to implement promised reforms, but it falls short of the one demand repeatedly voiced by protesters: Mubarak's immediate resignation.

Protesters have said they would not enter negotiations with the regime before Mubarak's departure. Mubarak insists that he intends to serve the remainder of his current six-year term and that he would die in Egypt, rejecting any suggestion that he leave the country.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also ordered a probe into clashes last week between the protesters and supporters of the government. i i

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also ordered a probe into clashes last week between the protesters and supporters of the government. Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also ordered a probe into clashes last week between the protesters and supporters of the government.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also ordered a probe into clashes last week between the protesters and supporters of the government.

Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

Freed Google Executive Rallies Protesters

Those who gathered in downtown Cairo on Tuesday were galvanized by the appearance of Google executive Wael Ghonim, who played a key role in starting Egypt's uprising and was released Monday after 12 days in custody.

"We will not abandon our demand, and that is the departure of the regime," Ghonim told the crowd amid whistling and thunderous applause.

He offered his condolences to the families of those killed in violent clashes last week — only a handful by official government estimates, but hundreds according to the opposition.

"I'm not a hero but those who were martyred are the heroes," he said, breaking into a chant of "Mubarak leave, leave."

Protester Ahmed el Druby, 28, said Ghonim's case put a face to the police-state repression and humiliation Egyptians have lived with for three decades.

"It was very touching," Druby said. "He is just one of hundreds of thousand of people who've been tortured by the regime, illegally abducted and detained for a long periods of time."

More than 100,000 people have joined a Facebook group nominating Ghonim to be their spokesman. Many demonstrators reject a group of officially sanctioned and traditional Egyptian opposition groups that have been negotiating with the government on their behalf in recent days.

Former air force Gen. Asmad Ibrahim was among the protesters and said it was time for Mubarak — also a former air force commander — to leave.

Anti-government protesters emerge from a tent in Cairo's Tahrir Square early Tuesday, the 15th day of protests calling for an end to Mubarak's regime. i i

Anti-government protesters emerge from a tent in Cairo's Tahrir Square early Tuesday, the 15th day of protests calling for an end to Mubarak's regime. Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images
Anti-government protesters emerge from a tent in Cairo's Tahrir Square early Tuesday, the 15th day of protests calling for an end to Mubarak's regime.

Anti-government protesters emerge from a tent in Cairo's Tahrir Square early Tuesday, the 15th day of protests calling for an end to Mubarak's regime.

Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

Mubarak "fought for this country. He served this country. But him and his regime have committed crimes against the people, too," Ibrahim told NPR. "Being a hero doesn't give you the right to fight your own people."

Middle East analyst Fawaz Gerges said Tuesday's protests send Mubarak a loud and clear message: that digging in and trying to ride out the storm of street protests will be resisted.

"I think the Mubarak regime now is put on notice that time is not on its side, that the protesters are as determined as ever to basically push forward their fundamental goal to force President Mubarak out and to reconstruct the entire political system," he said.

Even as the political crisis drags on, the government and state media have tried to show that it is business as usual in Egypt, with TV broadcasting scenes of a Cabinet gathering and a meeting between Mubarak and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

Mubarak, who has said he would step down when his term ends in September, appears simply to be trying to wait out the demonstrations, NPR's Eric Westervelt said.

"Protesters say ... they've got the determination and the will to keep it up. But certainly as we enter the third week of protest, the key question is can they keep up the momentum, can they keep the crowds coming in," he said.

Meanwhile, the government seems to be trying to emphasize that "Mubarak is a stabilizing force, that he can help guide this country to a new phase — an idea the protesters continue to reject outright," Westervelt said.

To try to tamp down the unrest, the Mubarak government has promised a hefty 15 percent pay raise to government employees, who make up a huge chunk of the country's workforce.

A Timetable For Egyptian Power Shift

In recent days, Washington has walked a fine line on Egypt, trying to offer support for pro-democracy forces without being seen as abandoning longtime ally Mubarak. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the question of whether the timetable presented by Suleiman was acceptable was up to the Egyptians.

"These are judgments to be made by the Egyptian people. If they want to hold to the schedule, that's their decision; if they want to advance the schedule, that's their decision," Crowley said.

Tuesday's announcement by the government came two days after Suleiman met for the first time with representatives of opposition groups, including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood — the country's largest and best organized opposition group — to debate a way out of the ongoing political crisis.

The fundamentalist Islamist group issued a statement before Suleiman's announcement Tuesday calling the reforms proposed so far as "partial" and insisting that Mubarak must go to ease what it called the anger felt by Egyptians who face widespread poverty and government repression.

The Brotherhood also accused pro-Mubarak thugs of detaining protesters, including Brotherhood supporters, and handing them over to the army's military police who torture them.

"We call on the military, which we love and respect, to refrain from these malicious acts," the statement read.

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

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