CAIRO (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians marched peacefully in Cairo on Friday to demand an immediate end to Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, but there was no sign of the army or the president’s U.S. allies forcing him out just yet.
Cairo’s Tahrir Square was crammed with people chanting “We’re not leaving, You are leaving!,” waving Egyptian flags and singing the national anthem, with a beefed-up military presence keeping pro-Mubarak activists out to prevent any bloodshed.
Friday prayers were held on the square in an 11th day of unprecedented mass rallies to try to topple 82-year-old Mubarak. One cleric praised the “revolution of the young” and declared: “We want the head of the regime removed.”
“Game over” said one banner, in English for the benefit of international television channels beaming out live coverage. Effigies of Mubarak hanging by the neck dangled over the square.
Turnout nationwide seemed short of the more than one million seen on Tuesday and which leaders had hoped to match on what they called “Departure Day,” a week after last Friday’s “Day of Wrath” to voice rage over poverty, repression and corruption.
Some Egyptians, weary of disorder, feel Mubarak did enough this week by pledging to step down in September and were wary of more violence by Mubarak loyalists, but others were resolute he had to quit to usher in a new chapter of modern Egyptian history.
Despite mass street protests and concessions by government, Mubarak’s fate now lies as much in deals struck among generals keen to retain influence and Western officials anxious not to see a key ally slide into chaos or be taken over by Islamists.
Egypt has been a U.S. ally throughout Mubarak’s rule and it is strategically vital to American interests because of its peace treaty with Israel, its control of the Suez Canal and its opposition to militant Islam.
The role of the army, revered in Egypt compared to police and other security forces which are feared, is vital in determining the future of the Arab world’s most populous nation.
European Union leaders echoed calls from the United States for Mubarak to do more than promise not to run in September’s election: “This transition process must start now,” they said.
But seeking to deflect criticism of interference in Egypt’s affairs, President Barack Obama said: “The future of Egypt will be determined by its people.”
Egypt’s president said on Thursday he was “fed up” but would not stand down as that would create chaos in Egypt.
“The key question he should be asking himself is: how do I leave a legacy behind in which Egypt is able to get through this transformative period?” said Obama, calling Mubarak a patriot.
Egypt’s vice president will meet a group of prominent figures on Saturday to examine a proposed solution to the country’s crisis in which he would assume the president’s powers for an interim period, one of the group said.
Diaa Rashwan told Reuters he and others had been invited to see Vice President Omar Suleiman, an ex-intelligence chief who has the confidence of Washington, to discuss an article of the constitution covering Mubarak handing powers to his deputy.
This solution could allow Mubarak to serve out his fifth term as a figurehead and end his tenure with some dignity.
With protesters breaking the curfew to spend another night in Tahrir (Liberation) Square, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq said: “We will not use force to disperse the protesters in Tahrir.” The atmosphere there was described as quiet and subdued.
Earlier, there was a festive mood as secular, professionals and pious, poorer, members of the mass Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood, mingled, sang and chanted in the square.
Away from the square, groups of Mubarak loyalists harassed journalists. Others tried to deter people from demonstrating. But there was little of the extreme violence seen on Wednesday and Thursday when shots were fired and clubs and iron bars used.
Qatar-based satellite channel Al Jazeera said its office in Cairo had been burned and destroyed by “gangs of thugs.” The office of Ikhwan Online, the Muslim Brotherhood’s website, was attacked and closed down in Cairo.
Earlier, the veteran defense minister visited the square, inspecting troops who were out in force after the bloodshed of previous days and prompting the crowd to chant that the army and the people were as one.
Some demonstrators said they understood a need for patience, but would keep up the pressure: “He’s bound to leave now, the only question is when,” said Khaled al-Khamisi. “I think the army does not want to see him humiliated.”
There were also demonstrations in Suez, Ismailia and Port Said, all east of Cairo, as well as Nile Delta cities to the north such Mansoura, Damanhour and Qalyoubia. More demonstrators protested in Aswan in the south.
In a reminder of how events in Egypt are linked to a wider confrontation between Islamists and Western powers in the oil-rich Middle East, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei 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.
U.S. officials said they were discussing with Egyptians options to start a handover of power to keep Egypt stable.
Though Obama has called publicly only for an immediate start to “transition,” one option, a U.S. official said, was for Mubarak to be replaced immediately.
Mubarak and ministers in the government he appointed a week ago in response to the protests insist stability is better and have appealed over the heads of the marchers to a wider public.
“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,” Shafiq was quoted as saying by state media.
Shafiq’s team has taken pains to try to present a moderate face to the public, apologizing for violence by pro-Mubarak groups this week and pledging to provide order and democracy.
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 Suleiman broke ground by saying the Brotherhood was welcome to join a national dialogue, it said it would not seek the presidency. Such a dialogue would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago.
Scenting victory, the loose-knit opposition, which includes liberal figurehead Mohamed ElBaradei as well as the Brotherhood, has rejected talks until Mubarak resigns.
Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League and former Egyptian foreign minister, said he believed Mubarak would hold on until September’s election.
“But there are extraordinary things happening, there’s chaos and perhaps he will take another decision,” he added.
Moussa, a possible successor to Mubarak, said he would consider standing. He later joined protesters in Tahrir Square.
The United Nations 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.
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, Myra MacDonald and Alastair Macdonald; Writing by Peter Millership; Editing by Philippa Fletcher.