Pro-Mubarak rallies spring up after exit pledge

2011-02-02 10:31

Rallies in support of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sprang up around Cairo today but were dwarfed by the mass protest against his regime the day after he pledged to stand down in September.

The veteran leader’s announcement late yesterday drew angry jeers from thousands who again defied a curfew to spend the night in the capital’s Tahrir Square – epicentre of protests that today raged into a ninth day.

But small groups also staged demos vowing allegiance to the embattled leader today morning, saying he represented stability amid growing insecurity and calling those who would see him go immediately “traitors”.

“Yes to Mubarak, to protect stability,” read one banner in a crowd of 500 gathered near the headquarters of the state television, about one kilometre away from Tahrir Square.

Some expressed their intention to march to drive the anti-Mubarak demonstrators out, while a witness said organisers were paying people 100 Egyptian pounds (about R120) to take part in the pro-Mubarak rally.

“Decent people left the square after the speech of President Mubarak,” said Gamal Ibrahim, a journalist among the crowd.

“Only the traitors are still there,” he added.

Other pro-Mubarak demonstrations sprung up in the upmarket Mohandeseen district, as well as near Ramses square where they harassed people heading for Tahrir Square.

“What more do you want? In any case Mubarak won’t stay. You must leave or blood will flow,” the small, mobile and vociferous demo shouted.

On Tahrir Square, Randa Ibrahim said the regime was trying to frighten the population into wanting the return of Mubarak’s police apparatus which has disappeared since Saturday after deadly clashes with protesters.

“They opened the doors of the prisons to try to terrify us. They are trying to starve the people to try to shut up the people,” she said.

She dismissed Mubarak’s speech as being “lies (and) too late”.

“I can’t trust him,” she said, insisting he step down.

“He can stay in Egypt and he can enjoy a comfortable retirement, but no more political power... He should give up all official responsibilities,” she said.

Despite years of ambiguity over whether he would seek a sixth term and his refusal until this week to even name a vice-president, the 82-year-old Mubarak insisted he had never intended to stay in office beyond this year.

“I say in all honesty, and without taking into consideration the current situation, I was not planning to present myself for a new presidential term,” he said.

Egypt is “the nation I have defended and in which I will die”, he said, rejecting the possibility he might flee as veteran Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali did in January after a popular revolt ended his iron-fisted rule.

Mubarak said the country had a choice “between chaos and stability” after the clashes between protesters and security personnel that left an estimated 300 people dead and more than 3 000 injured.

“My first responsibility is now to bring security and stability to the nation to ensure a peaceful transition of power,” he said to boos from the thousands still gathered in Tahrir Square.

Mubarak pledged to introduce amendments to the constitution to limit the president’s term of office and to make it easier for people to field candidates for the office.

Opposition leaders have long demanded such reforms but the ambitions of the protest movement go much further.

Protests yesterday – the biggest yet – were buoyed by a promise from the army that it regarded the protesters grievances as “legitimate” and would not open fire.

Hundreds of thousands took to the streets across the capital and a similar number in the second city Alexandria and smaller protests around the country.

US President Barack Obama, who spoke to Mubarak after the speech, went on television to say he had told the Egyptian president that an orderly transition needed to begin immediately.

“What is clear, and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now,” Obama said.

Obama also made a gesture towards those who reacted angrily to Mubarak’s speech.

“To the people of Egypt, particularly the young people of Egypt, I want to be clear, we hear your voices. I have an unyielding belief that you will determine your own destiny,” Obama said at the White House.

Mubarak’s comments buoyed stock markets in Asia, which dealers said were bullish due to the perception that the president had done enough to begin to ease tensions in his country.

Egyptian opposition groups have said however there could be no negotiations with the regime until Mubarak left.

And former UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed El Baradei, whom some consider as a potential figurehead for the protest movement, had even said Friday had been set as “departure day” for the veteran president.

But Mubarak’s announcement did go a long way to meeting quietly voiced US calls for him to make his future plans plain. A US official described it as significant but raised doubts about whether it would be enough.

“What’s clear is that this is a movement that is gaining momentum; it’s not going to go away. And it’s not likely to be enough,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The angry eight-day revolt in Egypt has sent jitters throughout the Middle East, coming as it did after the uprising in Tunisia and with analysts warning of a domino effect through the Arab world.

Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, also facing demands that he quit, said today he would freeze constitutional changes that would allow him to be president for life and delayed a controversial April poll.

In Jordan, King Abdullah II sacked his government after weeks of demands for change, while a Facebook group of Syrian youth called for a peaceful revolution to start on Friday.

With no sign of an end to Egypt’s biggest uprising in three decades, foreign governments have been scrambling since the weekend to pull their nationals from the country, leading to chaotic scenes at Cairo’s airport.

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