Protesters flood Cairo square, Mubarak warns of chaos (Roundup)

Friday, February 4, 2011

CAIRO/WASHINGTON - Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a major show of strength Friday seeking the immediate exit of embattled President Hosni Mubarak, who warned that the country would sink into chaos if he stepped down now.

As the US mounted pressure on Mubarak, who has governed Egypt for three long decades, protests across the country were stepped up after the Friday prayers. On the 11th day of unceasing demonstrations, the hub continued to be the sprawling downtown Cairo square, now ringed by the army.

In an interview to ABC News, Mubarak, 82, reiterated that he was ready to go — but not now.

“I am fed up. After 62 years in public service, I have had enough. I want to go,” he said.

“I don’t care what people say about me. Right now I care about my country, I care about Egypt,” said Mubarak, who is under intense pressure to quit following a political upheaval that began Jan 25 and which has left over a dozen people dead and over 800 injured this week and up to 300 overall.

The president warned of chaos if he stepped down without putting a transitional government in place.

But that had no effect on the increasingly belligerent opposition and the sea of protestors swarming Tahrir Square, who kept a steady chant of high-pitched slogans seeking the immediate resignation of Mubarak, one of the longest serving rulers in the Arab world.

Friday has been dubbed the “day of departure” for Mubarak.

Some men had “Go” written on their palms. Others had their heads and eyes bandaged — wounds caused by pitched street fighting with pro-Mubarak mobs who the opposition alleged were made up of plainclothes policemen.

Both sides in and around the Tahrir Square were armed with home-made catapults to hurl rocks at each other. There were also makeshift barricades. Many held Egyptian flags.

Al Jazeera said the pro-democracy protesters built walls and seized strategic locations while the pro-Mubarak crowd mostly advanced in a mob, throwing rocks and then retreating under return fire.

Defence Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi made a surprise visit to the sprawling ground and talked to some military commanders as well as a few demonstrators.

The embarassed government has apologised for Wednesday’s bloodshed in Cairo and invited the Muslim Brotherhood — the country’s most organised but still banned opposition group — for talks.

As defiant protesters camped out in the square, the US was locked in hectic efforts to defuse the volatile situation in one of the most important countries in the Middle East.

The Obama administration wants Mubarak to quit and turn over power to a transitional government headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman with the support of the military, New York Times reported quoting officials and Arab diplomats.

The Times said the proposal calls for the transitional government to invite members from opposition groups to begin work to open up the electoral system to bring about free and fair elections in September.

The mood of the protesters at ground zero Tahrir square seemed upbeat as they became more vocal in their demand for Mubarak’s ouster.

“The feel here is that today is the final day for Mubarak, it’s time for him to go,” said Gigi Ibrahim, a political activist, told Al Jazeera.

“This whole process has been about who is more determined and who is not willing to give up. And every day (protesters) get more and more determined.”

Friday’s demonstration came a day after foreign journalists in Cairo were viciously attacked by mobs on the streets, sparking global condemnation.

Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna said: “I am pained and shocked to learn about the detention and attacks on journalists in Egypt who were reporting on the unfolding developments. Such incidents are totally unacceptable and must stop immediately.”

Some 3,000 foreign and Egyptian correspondents are now in Cairo, many without accreditation with the national authorities.

As the situation worsened, governments and companies chartered evacuation flights. Between 10,000 and 13,000 passengers have fled since Wednesday on around 95 flights.

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