Egypt VP: 'We can't put up with' continued protests

/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Vice President Omar Suleiman warned Tuesday that "we can't put up with" continued protests in Tahrir for a long time, saying the crisis must be ended as soon as possible in a sharply worded sign of increasing regime impatience with 16 days of mass demonstrations.

Suleiman said there will be "no ending of the regime" and no immediate departure for President Hosni Mubarak, according to the state news agency MENA, reporting on a meeting between the vice president and the heads of state and independent newspapers.

He told them the regime wants dialogue to resolve protesters' demands for democratic reform, adding in a veiled warning, "We don't want to deal with Egyptian society with police tools."

At one point in the roundtable meeting, Suleiman warned that the alternative to dialogue "is that a coup happens, which would mean uncalculated and hasty steps, including lots of irrationalities. We don't want to reach that point, to protect Egypt."

'Very dangerous for society'
Pressed by the editors to explain the comment, he said he did not mean a military coup but that "a force that is unprepared for rule" could overturn state institutions, said Amr Khafagi, editor-in-chief of the privately-owned Shorouk daily, who attended the briefing. "He doesn't mean it in the classical way."

"The presence of the protesters in Tahrir Square and some satellite stations insulting Egypt and belittling it makes citizens hesitant to go to work," he said. We can't put up with this for a long time, and this crisis must be ended as soon as possible.

He warned that calls by some protesters for a campaign of civil disobedience are "very dangerous for society and we can't put up with this at all."

Suleiman's comments came after a young Google executive who helped ignite Egypt's uprising energized a cheering crowd of hundreds of thousands Tuesday with his first appearance in their midst after being released from 12 days in secret detention. "We won't give up," he promised at one of the biggest protests yet in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Once a behind-the-scenes Internet activist, 30-year-old Wael Ghonim has emerged as an inspiring voice for a movement that has taken pride in being a leaderless "people's revolution." Now, the various activists behind it — including Ghonim — are working to coalesce into representatives to push their demands for Mubarak's ouster.

For the first time, protesters made a foray to Parliament, several blocks away from their camp in the square. Several hundred marched to the legislature and chanted for it to be dissolved.

In Tahrir, the massive, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd's ranks swelled with new blood, including thousands of university professors and lawyers who marched in together as organizers worked to draw in professional unions. The crowd rivaled the biggest demonstration so far, a week ago, that drew a quarter-million people.

Some said they were inspired to turn out by an emotional television interview Ghonim gave Monday night just after his release from detention where he sobbed over those who have been killed in two weeks of clashes and insisted, "We love Egypt ... and we have rights."

"I cried," a 33-year-old upper-class housewife Fifi Shawqi said of the interview with Ghonim, who she'd never heard of before the TV appearance. She came to the Tahrir protest for the first time, bringing her three daughters and her sister. "I felt like he is my son and all the youth here are my sons."

Tuesday's huge turnout gave a resounding answer to the question of whether the protesters still have momentum even though two weeks of steadfast pressure have not achieved their goal of ousting 82-year-old Mubarak, Egypt's authoritarian leader for nearly three decades.  Suleiman made a new gesture, declaring a panel of judges and scholars to recommend constitutional changes within a month.

Ghonim has emerged as a rallying point for protesters, who reject a group of traditional Egyptian opposition groups that have met with the government amid the most sweeping concessions the regime has made in its three decades in power. Vice President Omar Suleiman on Tuesday made a new gesture, declaring a panel of judges and scholars to recommend constitutional changes within a month.

No concessions will do
The mostly youthful protesters insist that no concessions will do unless Mubarak steps down. But the protests, which began when Ghonim and other activists used the Internet to mobilize people to the streets, have lacked a representative voice. That has raised worries the regime could try to fragment the movement or traditional parties try to hijack it.

There were demonstrations calling for the president's ouster around the country as well with 18,000 people cramming into the main square of Egypt's second largest city in Alexandria. Some 3,000 service workers for the Suez Canal also demonstrated in Suez city, while 8,000 people chanted anti Mubarak slogans in the southern city of Assiut.

Even after nightfall, thousands remained in Tahrir, with larger numbers camping out the night than previously — including significant numbers of women and children — entertained by popular singers giving concerts.

Suleiman said the government has a plan and timetable for the peaceful transfer of power and that that the government will not pursue protesters who have been demanding Mubarak's ouster.

"The president welcomed the national consensus, confirming that we are putting our feet on the right path to getting out of the current crisis," Suleiman said after a briefing with the president on the national dialogue meeting.

"A clear road map has been put in place with a set timetable to realize the peaceful and organized transfer of power," he said in comments broadcast on state television.

'National appreciation'
Mubarak 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."

Suleiman promised there would be no reprisals against protesters for their two-week campaign to eject Mubarak from office.

Hundreds of thousands of people took part in previous demonstrations and the United Nations says 300 people may have died so far.

Egyptian opposition figures have reported little progress in talks with the government.

The fundamentalist Islamic group issued a statement earlier 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," said the statement.

The Brotherhood's criticism of the military is an ominous development.

The military is Egypt's most powerful and secretive organization, but it had never before been accused of practicing torture against civilians, a charge that has consistently been directed at the hated security agencies.

The military is also known to be an enemy of the Brotherhood and is opposed to giving it a prominent role in Egyptian politics. The military, which gave Egypt its four presidents since the toppling of the monarchy in 1952, is tightening its grip on power with the country's three top jobs now in their hands — Mubarak and his prime minister Ahmed Shafiq are former air force officers, while Suleiman is a retired army general and intelligence chief.

The army also has thousands of troops deployed across Cairo and other major cities, backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers.

The president tried to project business-as-usual Tuesday, receiving the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

'They're making progress'
The Obama administration is not calling for Mubarak's immediate departure, saying a precipitous exit could set back the country's democratic transition. Under Egypt's constitution, Mubarak's resignation would trigger an election in 60 days. U.S. officials said that is not enough time to prepare.

"Obviously, Egypt has to negotiate a path and they're making progress," President Barack Obama he told reporters in Washington.

The United States, adopting a cautious approach to the crisis, has urged all sides to allow time for an "orderly transition" to a new political order in Egypt, for decades a strategic ally.

But protesters worry that when Mubarak does leave, he will be replaced not with the democracy they seek but with another authoritarian ruler.