Egypt’s protesters were defiant yesterday after a warning from Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman that if they don’t enter negotiations, a “coup” could take place causing greater chaos, raising alarm of a crackdown. Organizers of the mass demonstrations sought to widen their uprising.
Suleiman’s sharply worded warning deepened protesters’ suspicions of his US-backed efforts to put together negotiations with the opposition over reforms. The protesters insist they will only enter dialogue after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak steps down, fearing the regime will manipulate talks and conduct only superficial changes without bringing real democracy.
Suleiman, a military man who was intelligence chief before being elevated to vice president amid the crisis, has repeatedly said Egypt was not ready for democracy.
“The culture of democracy is still far away,” Suleiman said in a meeting on Tuesday night with newspaper editors.
The vice president also appeared to be pushing ahead with a reform process even without dialogue. He said a panel of top judges and legal experts would recommend amendments to the Constitution by the end of the month, which would then be put to a referendum. However, the panel is dominated by Mubarak loyalists and previous referendums on amendments drawn up by the regime have been marred by vote rigging to push them through.
Protest organizers have called for a new “protest of millions” for tomorrow — their term for dramatically enlarged rallies — but this time they would be held in multiple parts of Cairo instead of only in central Tahrir Square, said Khaled Abdel-Hamid, one of the youth organizers. He also said protesters were calling for labor strikes, trying to draw powerful labor unions into support for their cause.
Abdel-Hamid dismissed Suleiman’s warnings.
“We are striking and we will protest and we will not negotiate until Mubarak steps down,” he said. “Whoever wants to threaten us, then let them do so.”
A previous “protest of millions” last week drew at least 250,000 people to Tahrir — their biggest yet, along with crowds of tens of thousands in other cities. A Tahrir rally on Tuesday rivalled that one in size, fueled by a renewed enthusiasm after the release of Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing manager, who helped spark the unprecedented protest movement.
Around 2,000 protesters waved huge flags outside the parliament several blocks from Tahrir yesterday, where they moved a day earlier in the movement’s first expansion out of the square. They chanted slogans demanding the dissolving of the legislature, where almost all the seats are held by the ruling party.
Thousands of protesters chanting “we are not leaving until he leaves” camped overnight in Tahrir in tents made with plastic tarps and bed covers to protect them from chilly weather, sprawling out into sidestreets. Many have been sleeping underneath the tanks of soldiers surrounding the square to prevent the vehicles from moving or trying to clear the area for traffic.
Others started to flow into Tahrir yesterday morning. The demonstrations have paralyzed the area around the square, defying the government’s efforts to restore a sense of normalcy as the uprising enters its third week.