CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptians staged one of their biggest protests yet on Tuesday demanding President Hosni Mubarak step down now, their wrath undiminished by the vice president’s announcement of a plan to transfer power.
Protesters, many moved by a Google executive’s tearful account of his detention by security forces, poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square to pack a space that can hold a quarter of a million people.
While the government refuses to budge on the demonstrators’ main demands, Vice President Omar Suleiman promised there would be no reprisals against the protesters for their three-week-old campaign to eject Mubarak, 82, after 30 years in office.
But they dismissed his promises, accusing the government of playing for time, and swore they would not give up until the current “half revolution” was complete.
By bringing at least as many people onto the streets as the last big demonstration last Friday, the protesters showed their movement has not lost momentum. The next big test will be whether as many people can be mobilized on Friday.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden also added pressure, pressing Suleiman for an orderly transition of power that is “prompt, meaningful, peaceful and legitimate,” the White House said, and calling for the immediate lifting of Egypt’s emergency law.
Freed Google executive Wael Ghonim addressed the cheering crowd.
“You are the heroes. I am not a hero, you are the heroes,” said Ghonim, who broke down as he described being blindfolded during 12 days of detention.
Ghonim has for now at least been thrust to the forefront of a protest movement that has yet to produce a leader. Activists say Ghonim was behind a Facebook group that helped to inspire the wave of protests. His interview also appears to have persuaded many Egyptians to side with the demonstrations.
“Ghonim’s tears have moved millions and turned around the views of those who supported (Mubarak) staying,” website Masrawy.com wrote two hours after the interview. In that short span, 70,000 people signed up to Facebook pages supporting him.
Later Ghonim expressed his sorrow for the victims of the violence that has claimed an estimated 300 lives.
“I saw young people dying and now the president has a responsibility to see what the people demand,” he told Reuters.
Google had launched a service to help Egyptians circumvent government restrictions on using the social network Twitter, enabling them to dial a telephone number and leave a voice mail that would then be sent on the online service.
The state news agency said 34 political prisoners had been released, the first to be set free since Mubarak promised reforms to quell the popular uprising.
The White House called on Egypt to release all arrested protesters and journalists immediately.
“The government has got to stop arresting protesters and journalists, harassment, beatings, detentions of reporters, of activists, of those involved in civil society,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said at a daily news briefing.
Meanwhile, comments by Suleiman who said Egypt was not ready for democracy were “unhelpful,” Gibbs said.
Protesters completely filled Tahrir Square for the third time since the demonstrations began on January 25.
“I came here for the first time today because this cabinet is a failure, Mubarak is still meeting the same ugly faces,” said Afaf Naged, 71, a former member of the board of directors of the state-owned National Bank of Egypt. “He can’t believe it is over. He is a very stubborn man,” she said.
Suleiman, a long-time intelligence chief, led talks this week with opposition groups including the Muslim Brotherhood -- Mubarak’s sworn enemies.
In comments broadcast on state television, he said: “A clear road map has been put in place with a set timetable to realize the peaceful and organized transfer of power.”
So far the government has conceded little ground in talks and Mubarak has promised only to stand down when his term expires in September.
Many in a country where about 40 percent of people live on less than $2 a day are desperate to return to work and normal life, even some of those wanting to oust Mubarak.
But some telecoms and steel workers were emboldened by the demonstrations and went on strike to demand better wages.
“HALF A REVOLUTION”
People on Tahrir Square were skeptical about the talks and suspicious of Mubarak’s motives. Youssef Hussein, a 52-year-old tourist driver from Aswan, held up a sign saying: “Dialogue prolongs the life of the regime and gives it the kiss of life. No dialogue until Mubarak leaves.”
“This dialogue is just on paper, it is just political maneuvering to gain time,” said Sayed Hagaz from the Nile Delta.
Ayman Farag, a Cairo lawyer, said the protesters’ work was far from complete. “What has happened so far is only half a revolution and I hope it will continue to the end,” he said.
Suleiman promised the harassment of protesters would end.
“The president emphasized that Egypt’s youth deserve the appreciation of the nation and issued a directive to prevent them being pursued, harassed or having their right to freedom of expression taken away,” he said.
Tuesday’s rally and another called for Friday are tests of the protesters’ ability to maintain pressure on Mubarak.
Opposition figures have reported little progress in the talks with the government. The official news agency said Mubarak issued a decree ordering the establishment of a committee to study and propose legal and constitutional amendments.
The Muslim Brotherhood, by far the best-organized opposition group, said on Monday it could quit negotiations if protesters’ demands were not met, including the immediate exit of Mubarak.
Additional reporting by Samia Nakhoul, Dina Zayed, Marwa Awad, Andrew Hammond, Alexander Dziadosz, Yasmine Saleh, Sherine El Madany, and Alison Williams in Cairo; Phil Stewart and David Alexander in Washington; Writing by David Stamp and Jon Hemming; Editing by Ralph Boulton