Hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters are packing Egypt’s town squares today for a “million-man march,” emboldened by a startling promise from the nation’s much-vaunted army that soldiers would not fire on their countrymen.
Thousands of foreigners have been fleeing Egypt for days, and by late afternoon, the U.S. State Department announced it had ordered the departure of all non-essential diplomats.
The eighth day of protests against President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30-year iron-fisted rule has already been the biggest, with hoards of demonstrators rallying into Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which means “Liberation” in Arabic. Al-Jazeera put the number at 1 million already, saying tens of thousands are backed up on a huge bridge over the Nile next to Tahrir.
“There’s hardly space to move. Square rocking with people singing. It’s Magnificent,” Omar Robert Hamilton wrote on Twitter from Tahrir Square. He described watching a priest and a Muslim imam holding hands aloft as the crowd chanted behind them.
The plan is to march on Mubarak’s heavily guarded presidential palace, several miles inland from the Nile River, The Guardian reported, mapping the route on its website. It’s unclear what kind of confrontation could unfold there. Some protesters are carrying signs with Mubarak’s picture and the slogan “Your head must roll,” The Daily Telegraph reported.
The U.N. human rights chief, Navi Pillay, told Reuters she has unconfirmed reports that up to 300 people may have been killed in Egyptian violence over the past week. That’s about three times the figure released by Egyptian authorities. Pillay also urged calm during today’s protests, calling them a “pivotal moment.”
Some witnesses say today’s protests are shaping up to be better organized and orderly. Volunteers wearing tags reading “Security of the People” scanned the crowd in Tahrir for possible government infiltrators or troublemakers, The Associated Press reported.
National train service is suspended in an apparent attempt by the regime to stymie the flow of participants. Overnight, the last of Egypt’s main Internet service providers went down. But Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and former U.N. official who has emerged as a consensus negotiator for opposition groups, said the regime’s efforts would not stop the people.
“As you can hear in the streets, people are not saying Mubarak should go, they are now saying he should be put on trial,” ElBaradei told The Independent newspaper, dismissing Mubarak’s Cabinet reshuffle as merely an effort to cling to power. “If he wants to save his skin, he better leave.”
Two political developments late Monday were likely to bolster protesters’ spirits: The army announced it would not open fire on demonstrators, and Egypt’s new vice president – Omar Suleiman, who was handpicked by Mubarak – said he would start talks with the opposition. Such talks have never happened in Mubarak’s decades-long rule.
An unnamed Western diplomat told The New York Times that Monday night’s moves are believed to be part of choreographed maneuvers by the most senior people around Mubarak to set the stage for his exit.
Around 9 p.m., a uniformed military spokesman appeared on state TV and declared that Egypt’s “armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people.” Addressing protesters directly, he said the military understands “the legitimacy of your demands” and “affirms that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody.”
It was an unprecedented promise from a military with a reputation for uncompromising strength and support for the regime. Mubarak and most of his Cabinet are former generals.
But in recent days, the iconic image of an Egyptian officer ferried on the shoulders of a boisterous crowd has flooded the world. Moments earlier, he apparently tore up a photo of Mubarak and declared his allegiance with the masses. There’s been an uneasy camaraderie between protesters and soldiers, often milling around together in Tahrir Square.
The army’s gesture could help win it backing among the protesters, putting the military in a situation where it has support from both regime figures and the people. That could make the army the kingmaker in any new political arrangement.
“The military has a great interest in maintaining order. It knows that President Mubarak is a liability and he needs to step down, but they want to do it in an orderly fashion. This way they can win over the protesters and create momentum,” Maha Azzam, a Middle East expert at London’s Chatham House think tank, told AOL News. “The military now is the strongest power broker in Egypt, in terms of authority of the state. But the other important broker is the protesters, the Egyptians themselves.”
Meanwhile, Washington has sent its former ambassador to Egypt, Frank Wisner, to Cairo amid speculation about whether the Obama administration might privately ask Mubarak to resign. The State Department declined to say whether Wisner, who knows Mubarak personally and arrived in Cairo on Monday, is carrying a message from President Barack Obama.
“That’s the kind of guy you would choose to have that conversation,” Daniel C. Kurtzer, another former U.S. ambassador to both Egypt and Israel, told the Times. “The key question, which we don’t know the answer to, is whether the administration has reached a decision on whether Mubarak should go.”
By Lauren Frayer