Tens of thousands of people prayed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square yesterday for an immediate end to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, hoping a million more would join them in what they called the “Day of Departure.”
“Leave! Leave! Leave!” they chanted after bowing in prayer and listening to a cleric declare “We want the head of the regime removed.” The cleric praised the “revolution of the young.”
The 82-year-old former general has said he was willing to retire but, having spent three decades portraying himself as a bulwark against radical Islam in the most populous Arab state, he has warned of chaos if he goes now.
“If I resign today, there will be chaos,” Mubarak told US television channel ABC. Commenting on the calls to resign, he said: “I don’t care what people say about me. Right now I care about my country.”
Doubtless fueling Western — and Israeli — concerns about the rise of the Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood in any free Egyptian election, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hailed what he called an “Islamic liberation movement” across the Arab world, and urged Egypt’s army to turn on Israel.
Khamenei praised those in Tunisia and now Egypt who had wrought dramatic change in the past month on autocratic regimes typical of the Arab world.
“The awakening of the Islamic Egyptian people is an Islamic liberation movement and I, in the name of the Iranian government, salute the Egyptian people and the Tunisian people,” Khamenei told worshipers at prayers in Tehran.
In Cairo, there was a festive atmosphere in Tahrir Square, with soldiers keeping order and Egyptian Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi paying a visit and talking to his soldiers.
“Today is the last day, today is the last day!” protesters shouted as Arabic pop songs blared from a bank of speakers and military helicopters clattered overhead. Ambulances stood by.
One banner, in English for the benefit of the international TV channels beaming out live, read: “Game over.”
Troops, who were out in greater numbers than on Friday last week, strung barbed wire across streets and erected checkpoints, slowing people’s ability to get to the square. Once weekly prayers end at mosques across the country, protest leaders were hoping they could declare they had put a million on the streets as they did on Tuesday.
The long-banned Brotherhood has sought to allay Western and Israeli concerns about its potential to take power in a free vote. A day after Mubarak’s new vice president broke ground by saying the Brotherhood was welcome to join a national dialogue, it said it would not seek the presidency.
The New York Times cited US officials and Arab diplomats as saying Washington was discussing a plan for Mubarak to hand over power to a transitional government headed by Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman with the support of the Egyptian military. It also quoted a senior Egyptian saying the Constitution did not allow this.
“That’s my technical answer,” he added. “My political answer is they should mind their own business.”
Suleiman also hinted at irritation with US interference in a TV interview on Thursday.
“There are some abnormal ways by which foreign countries have intervened through press declarations and statements. This was very strange, given the friendly relations between us and them,” he said.