CAIRO – A new rally Friday by nearly 100,000 protesters in Cairo and behind-the-scenes diplomacy from the Obama administration piled more pressure on President Hosni Mubarak to make a swift exit and allow a temporary government to embark on an immediate path toward democracy.
Two days of wild clashes between protesters and regime supporters that killed 11 people this week seemed to have pushed the United States to the conclusion that an Egypt with Mubarak at the helm is potentially more unstable than one without him.
For the first time in the 11-day wave of protests, varying scenarios were being put forward by two opposing camps in Egypt and by the United States on how to usher the country into a post-Mubarak era after nearly 30 years of his authoritarian rule.
President Barack Obama said discussions have begun in Egypt on a turnover of the government and he called for “a transition period that begins now.”
“We want to see this moment of turmoil turned into a moment of opportunity,” Obama said in Washington. He did not explicitly call for Mubarak to step down immediately, but U.S. officials said the administration has made a judgment that Mubarak has to go soon if the crisis is to end peacefully.
Under one U.S. proposal, the 82-year-old Mubarak would step down and hand power to a military-backed temporary government headed by his newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks. The government would prepare for free and fair elections later this year.
That would mesh in some ways with the demands of the protesters. But one significant difference was the timetable.
Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, one of the leaders of the protesters, criticized the government’s plan to reform the constitution within five months and hold presidential elections in September, saying that was too rushed.
“People are not stupid. … This is not really a genuine desire to go for reform,” ElBaradei said of the government’s timeframe. He said Mubarak must “hear the clear voice coming from the people and leave in dignity.”
Mubarak has staunchly refused to step down until elections in September, and his prime minister said Friday that stance is “unlikely” to change.
The protesters have vowed to continue their rallies until Mubarak goes, and they seemed flush with a sense of victory and recharged determination after repelling pro-regime rioters who attacked Tahrir Square on Wednesday, sparking 48 hours of mayhem and pitched battles.
Nearly 100,000 people packed the downtown plaza, whose name means “Liberation,” in a protest dubbed the “Friday of departure” in hopes it would be the day Mubarak goes. It was the biggest showing since a quarter-million people rallied Tuesday.
Crowds that included families with children flowed over bridges across the Nile into Tahrir, a sign the movement was not intimidated by the violence of the previous two days. In that fighting, pro-Mubarak combatants, some on horses and camels, hurled concrete, metal bars and firebombs, and unleashed barrages of automatic gunfire, but were eventually driven away.
The ruling National Democratic Party, accused by protesters of organizing the attack, denied any role, but called on its supporters to “adhere to a truce and not enter confrontations with others.” Protesters say the regime organized the assault by police in civilian clothes and paid thugs.
Suleiman and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq promised no action would be taken against the protest camp. A curfew in place for a week but widely ignored was eased Friday, to run from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m.
The Tahrir clashes brought the death toll since Jan. 25 to 109 people.