CAIRO (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians marched peacefully in Cairo on Friday to demand an immediate end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, but there was no word of his generals, or his U.S. allies, squeezing him out just yet.
Hoping for a million-strong turnout nationwide to mark what they called “Departure Day”, men and women from across Egyptian society streamed past patient soldiers to join a crowd estimated at about 200,000 in the capital’s Tahrir, or Liberation, Square.
Similar pro-democracy rallies were held in other cities.
“Leave! Leave! Leave!” they chanted after weekly Friday prayers in Cairo. A cleric praised the “revolution of the young” and declared: “We want the head of the regime removed.”
There was a festive, weekend atmosphere as secular, middle-class professionals and pious, generally poorer, members of the mass Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood, mingled, sang and chanted under banners and ubiquitous Egyptian flags.
Members of the Christian minority were also taking part.
“Game over” said one banner, in English for the benefit of international television channels beaming out live coverage.
The defence minister visited the square, inspecting troops who have promised to protect demonstrators. There was no sign of Mubarak loyalists who attacked protesters on previous days.
“The army and people are united!” the crowds chanted.
“Allahu akbar!” (God is greatest), some protesters cried after the prayers on Tahrir Square.
Iran’s supreme leader hailed an “Islamic liberation movement” in Egypt.
Iran’s anti-Western, Islamic revolution of 1979 against the repressive, U.S.-funded shah has been cited by some in Israel and the West as creating a possible precedent for Egypt to turn into a major hostile force to Western power in the region if its 60-year-old military-backed secular system falls.
Reuters TV live Tahrir Square, click link.reuters.com/kuf87r
Mubarak interview with ABC, click link.reuters.com/red87r
Protest timeline link.reuters.com/zyc77r
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Insider TV, click link.reuters.com/caw77r
U.S. officials said they were discussing with Egyptians a number of options to begin a handover of power that would keep Egypt stable. Though President Barack Obama has called publicly only for an immediate start to “transition”, one option, a U.S. official said, was for Mubarak to be replaced right away.
The United States is a key sponsor of Egypt’s politically influential army and of the Mubarak government as allies in the West struggle with radical Islam in the oil-rich Middle East.
In Brussels, European Union leaders renewed their calls for change in Egypt and warned the government against using force.
Mubarak, 82, responded to rallies of a million or more on Tuesday by pledging to retire when his fifth presidential term ends in September. That has not satisfied opposition leaders, including the Brotherhood and the liberal Mohamed ElBaradei.
But Mubarak hit back, saying he was “fed up” and willing to go but was holding on to prevent a descent into chaos. Ministers in the government he hastily appointed a week ago in response to the protests have kept up that message, appealing over the heads of the marchers to 80 million Egyptians weary of disruption.
“More than 95 percent of the Egyptian people would vote for the president to complete his presidential term ... and not (retire) now as America and some Western states want,” new Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq was quoted as saying by state media.
Shafiq’s team, along with newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman, have been at pains to try to present a moderate face to the public, apologising for violence by pro-Mubarak groups this week and pledging to provide order and democracy.
New Finance Minister Samir Radwan told Reuters the economic losses after 11 days of protest will be “huge”. The tourist business, centred on pyramids and beaches, has been ravaged.
Radwan said the government had set up a fund worth $850 million to compensate people whose property had been damaged.
The long-banned Muslim Brotherhood has sought to allay Western and Israeli concerns about its potential to take power in a free vote. A day after Vice President Suleiman broke ground by saying the Brotherhood was welcome to join a national dialogue, it said it would not seek the presidency.
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose non-Arab, Shi’ite Islam is often at odds with the Sunni branch dominant among Arabs, 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, in the name of the Iranian government, I salute the Egyptian people and the Tunisian people,” said Khamenei, whose forces suppressed popular protests in 2009.
Calling himself a “brother in religion” to the Arabs, he said the Egyptian army should back the protesters and “focus its eyes on the Zionist enemy”. Cairo’s 1979 peace treay with Israel has been a key component of the Jewish state’s security strategy.
Egypt’s armed forces, which receive hefty funding, training and arms from Washington, appear to be weighing their options, ready to see Mubarak replaced, while anxious to maintain their institutional influence over Egyptian politics.
Any new government will face major challenges, not least the sheer diversity of long-suppressed political opinion, religious tensions and the high expectations aroused by the demonstrations of solutions to unemployment and other economic ills.
Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League and former Egyptian foreign minister, said he believed Mubarak would hold on until September’s election. Then he added cautiously: “But there are extraordinary things happening, there’s chaos and perhaps he will take another decision.”
Moussa, spoken of by some as a possible successor, told France’s Europe 1 radio that he would consider standing. He later joined protesters in Tahrir Square.
The U.N. estimates 300 people have died in the unrest, inspired in part by protests in Tunisia which forced veteran strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee last month and which have since spread to other parts of the Middle East.
In Algeria, opposition groups said on Friday they would probably go ahead with protests planned for next week, despite concessions on political freedoms and measures to create jobs announced by the government on Thursday to address complaints.
Reporting by Edmund Blair, Samia Nakhoul, Patrick Werr, Dina Zayed, Marwa Awad, Shaimaa Fayed, Alexander Dziadosz, Yasmine Saleh, Sherine El Madany, Yannis Behrakis, Jonathan Wright, Andrew Hammond, Tom Perry and Alison Williams in Cairo and Myra MacDonald in London; writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Mark Trevelyan