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Concessions in Egypt before march of a million

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak makes a few concessions to protesters Monday ahead of a planned million-strong march. The army vows not to fire on peaceful protesters.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Egypt's anti-government protesters, sensing victory after President Hosni Mubarak agreed to discuss sweeping political reforms, rallied support for what they hope can be a million-strong march for democracy on Tuesday.

Mubarak's newly appointed vice-president began talks with opposition figures and the army declared the protesters demands "legitimate" and said it would hold its fire.

But protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square, where thousands kept vigil through the night in defiance of a curfew, vowed to continue their campaign until the 82-year-old Mubarak quit.

"The only thing we will accept from him is that he gets on a plane and leaves," said 45-year-old lawyer Ahmed Helmi.

Pressure from seven days of street demonstrations, Western allies and the army appeared to portend the unraveling of Mubarak's 30 years of one-man rule.

"The presence of the army in the streets is for your sake and to ensure your safety and well-being, said an army statement. "The armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people."

But military spokesman Ismail Etman also warned against "any act that destabilizes security of the country."

Vice President Omar Suleiman appeared on state television to say Mubarak had asked him to begin dialogue with all political forces on constitutional and other reforms.

The channel later said talks had begun.

Suleiman also said a new government sworn in by Mubarak on Monday would fight unemployment, inflation and corruption — all key grievances. The new government will review whether the last elections, in 2005, were legitimate, he said.

Suleiman, a longtime Mubarak confidant, did not say what the changes would entail or which groups the government would speak with. Opposition forces have long demanded a lifting of strict restrictions on who is eligible to run for president to allow a real challenge to the ruling party, as well as measures to ensure elections are fair. A presidential election is scheduled for September.

The protest death toll was at least 150, Al Jazeera TV network said.

The new government lineup sworn in Monday was greeted with scorn from Tahrir Square — whose name in Arabic means "Liberation" — to Washington, D.C.

Opponents ranging from young, secular dissidents to a mass Islamist movement want Mubarak to quit altogether. They hope to rally a million people onto the streets Tuesday.

More than 10,000 people beat drums, played music and chanted slogans in Tahrir Square, which has become ground zero of protests demanding the ouster of the 82-year-old president.

The vibe in the sprawling plaza — whose name in Arabic means "Liberation" — was intensifying with the feeling that the upheaval was nearing a decisive point. "He only needs a push," was one of the most frequent chants. One leaflet circulated by protesters said it was time for the military to choose between Mubarak and the people.

"We don't want life to go back to normal until Mubarak leaves," said Israa Abdel-Fattah, a founder of the April 6 Group, a movement of young people pushing for democratic reform.

"It's almost the same government, as if we are not here, as if we are sheep," sneered one protester, Khaled Bassyouny, a 30-year-old Internet entrepreneur. He said it was time to escalate the marches. "It has to burn. It has to become ugly. We have to take it to the presidential palace."

Tahrir Square, surrounded by army tanks and barbed wire, was celebratory and determined as more protesters filtered in to join what has turned into a continual Cairo encampment despite a curfew, moved up an hour to 3 p.m. on its fourth day in effect. Some protesters played music, others distributed dates and other food to their colleagues or watched the latest news on TVs set up on sidewalks.

Young men climbed lampposts to hang Egyptian flags and signs proclaiming "Leave, Mubarak!" One poster featured Mubarak's face plastered with a Hitler mustache, a sign of the deep resentment toward the 82-year-old leader they blame for widespread poverty, inflation and official indifference and brutality during his 30 years in power.

Ahmed Sami, 16, choked back tears as he explained why he and his father joined tens of thousands of protesters.

"I want to live in a democracy, in social justice. I want to choose my parliament," he said. Flush with idealism, he added that any Egyptian, including himself, should have the chance to run for president.

Looting eases
Looting that erupted over the weekend across the city of around 18 million eased — but Egyptians endured another day of the virtual halt to normal life that the crisis has caused. Trains stopped running Monday, raising the possibility authorities were trying to prevent residents of the provinces from joining protests in the capital.

Banks, schools and the stock market in Cairo were closed for the second working day, making cash tight. An unprecedented complete shutdown of the Internet was in its fourth day. Long lines formed outside bakeries as people tried to replenish their stores of bread.


U.S.: Election needed
On Monday the White House called for free and fair elections in Egypt, but refused to say whether the U.S. believes President Hosni Mubarak should run in those contests.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs dismissed Mubarak's new government, saying the situation in Egypt calls for action, not appointments.

Gibbs also said the U.S. Embassy in Cairo has not been in contact with opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei this week. Egypt's government put ElBaradei on house arrest after he returned to the country amid the protests.

The grievances of the Egyptian people needed to be addressed, Gibbs said.

Former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Frank Wisner, is in Cairo and "has the ability" to talk to Egyptian leaders, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said later Monday.

Crowley gave no details of who Wisner, the ambassador to Egypt from 1986-1991, would meet but said he would have the opportunity to reinforce the U.S. message to Egypt.

Mubarak's naming of a new Cabinet appeared to be aimed at showing the regime is willing to an extent to listen to the popular anger. The most significant change was the replacement of the interior minister, Habib el-Adly, who heads internal security forces and is widely despised by protesters for the brutality some officers have shown. A retired police general, Mahmoud Wagdi, will replace him.

Of the 29-member Cabinet, 14 were new faces, most of them not members of the ruling National Democratic Party. Among those purged were several of the prominent businessmen who held economic posts and have engineered the country's economic liberalization policies the past decades. Many Egyptians resented the influence of millionaire politician-moguls, who were close allies of the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, long thought to be the heir apparent.

Mubarak retained his long-serving defense minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

State newspapers on Monday published a sternly worded letter from Mubarak to his new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, ordering him to move swiftly to introduce political, legislative and constitutional reforms and pursue economic policies that will improve people's lives.

Protesters renew chants
But as news of the new government was heard in Tahrir Square, many of the protesters renewed chants of "We want the fall of this regime."

Mostafa el-Naggar, a member of the ElBaradei-backing Association for Change, said he recognized no decision Mubarak took after Jan. 25, the first day of Egyptian protests emboldened by Tunisians' expulsion of their longtime president earlier in the month.

"This is a failed attempt," said el-Naggar of the new government. "He is done with."

If Egypt's opposition groups are able to truly coalesce, it could sustain and amplify the momentum of the week-old protests.

But unity is far from certain among the array of movements involved in the protests, with sometimes conflicting agendas — including students, online activists, grassroots organizers, old-school opposition politicians and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, along with everyday citizens drawn by the exhilaration of marching against the government.

It was not clear how much the groups that met Monday represent everyone. The gathering of around 30 representatives, meeting in the Cairo district of Dokki, agreed to work as a united coalition and supported a call for millions of people to turn out for a march Tuesday, said Abu'l-Ela Madi , the spokesman of one of the participating groups, al-Wasat, a moderate breakaway faction from the Muslim Brotherhood.

But they disagreed on other key points. The representatives decided to meet again Tuesday morning at the downtown Cairo headquarters of Wafd, the oldest legal opposition party, to finalize and announce a list of demands. They will also decide whether to make prominent reform advocate Mohamed ElBaradei spokesman for the protesters, Madi said.

Then, he said, they will march to Tahrir Square to demand the ouster of the 82-year-old Mubarak. The coalition also called for a general strike Monday, although much of Cairo remained shut down anyway, with government officers and private businesses closed.

The various protesters are united by little, however, except the demand that Mubarak go. Perhaps the most significant tensions among them is between young secular activists and the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to form an Islamist state in the Arab world's largest nation. The more secular are deeply suspicious the Brotherhood aims to co-opt what they contend is a spontaneous, popular movement.

Brotherhood role in question
ElBaradei, a pro-democracy advocate and former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, invigorated anti-Mubarak feeling with his return to Egypt last year, but the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood remains Egypt's largest opposition movement.

In a nod to the suspicions, Brotherhood figures insist they are not seeking a leadership role.

"We don't want to harm this revolution," Mohamed Mahdi Akef, a former leader of the group.

Still, Brotherhood members appeared to be joining the protest in greater numbers and more openly. During the first few days of protests, the crowd in Tahrir Square was composed of mostly young men in jeans and t-shirts. Today, many of the volunteers handing out food and water to protesters are men in long traditional dress with the trademark Brotherhood appearance — a closely cropped haircut and bushy beards.

Despite the ongoing signs of protest, police and garbage collectors were appearing on the streets of Cairo and subway stations reopened after soldiers and neighborhood watch groups armed with clubs and machetes kept the peace in many districts overnight.

Still some incidents continued. One watch group fended off a band of robbers who tried to break in and steal antiquities from the warehouse of the famed Karnak Temple on the east bank of the Nile in the ancient southern city of Luxor. The locals clashed with the attackers who arrived at the temple carrying guns and knives in two cars around 3 a.m., and seized five of them, handing them over to the military, said neighborhood protection committee member Ezz el-Shafei.

In Cairo, soldiers detained about 50 men trying to break into the Egyptian National Museum in a fresh attempt to loot some of the country's archaeological treasures, the military said.

Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera said six of its English service journalists were freed Monday after being blocked from leaving their hotels. Their camera equipment was seized during the incident.

On Sunday, Nilesat, the Egyptian satellite transmission company, cut the signal for Al-Jazeera's main channel following complaints from Egyptian authorities that its round-the-clock coverage was slanted toward protesters and could encourage more unrest.

The news channel was told to shut down its operations but it has managed to continue coverage with fixed-position cameras and reports by phone.

Troops in SinaiMeanwhile, Israeli officials say they have agreed to allow Egypt to move several hundred troops into the Sinai peninsula for the first time since the countries reached peace three decades ago.

Under the 1979 peace treaty, Israel returned the captured Sinai to Egypt. In return, Egypt agreed to leave the area demilitarized.

With street protests threatening the Egyptian regime, the officials say that Israel agreed to allow the Egyptian army to move two battalions, about 800 soldiers, into Sinai. The officials say the troops moved into the Sharm el-Sheikh area on Sinai's southern tip, far from Israel, on Sunday.

The officials spoke Monday on condition of anonymity because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has banned the government from discussing the situation in Egypt.

In another indication of how Egypt's protests were possibly reverberating in capitals around around the world, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton planned to convene an unprecedented mass meeting of U.S. ambassadors, The Associated Press reported.

The top envoys from nearly all of America's 260 embassies, consulates and other posts in more than 180 countries will be gathering at the State Department beginning on Monday. Officials say it's the first such global conference, the AP reported.