One million people clamour for their president to go - Michael Jansen - Irish Times 020211

One million people clamour for their president to go

MICHAEL JANSEN in Cairo

Coming from every direction, men, women and children line up cheerfully to flash identity cards at army checkpoints

OVER ONE million protesters yesterday poured into the broad square at the heart of the Egyptian capital for an eighth day to demand an end to the 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak. Although organisers had promised a “million man” march to the presidential palace in distant Heliopolis, the vast throng remained at Tahrir (Liberation) Square. “It doesn’t matter where we are,” said one man. “Our message is clear; Mubarak has to go.”

The area was cordoned off by battle tanks, armoured troop carriers, razor wire and troops toting automatic rifles. Since the army command had dubbed the protest “legitimate” and pledged not to use force against participants, smiling young soldiers in too-large helmets stood by as men, women and children filed slowly into the square, filling the entire historic site.

They came from every direction and every quarter, walking from poor Shubra and rich Garden City. They lined up cheerfully to flash identity cards at army checkpoints and to be searched for weapons by civilian volunteers determined to ensure the massive rally was peaceful. At the barrier near the Egyptian Museum I saw a man, perhaps an agent provocateur sent by the regime, being led away by troops.

A helicopter circled overhead as a wedge of protesters bearing a mock coffin for the country’s latest “pharaoh”, Mubarak, pushed through the crowd. I was soon surrounded by Egyptians determined to explain why they were staging the country’s second revolution. The first was an anti-colonialist revolt mounted by the military in 1957 against British-supported King Farouk. This one, observed one man, is a revolution against mismanagement, corruption and US clienthood.

On a placard on the side of the square someone had painted “USA Don’t Involve, USA Admin we will demo with our will, Play your games with the tyrant.” A poster borne by one protester read: “Our message to the West is to choose between the people and the regime.”Another brandished a sign of the Star of David, representing Israel, with a red cross through it, signifying opposition to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. Ibrahim Abdul Razzak, a dentist from Mubarak’s home province of Minufiya, said: “This regime is an agent of the West and does not care for the Egyptian people. It only cares for the US and Israel.”

He called for an interim government of technocrats and for internationally supervised elections for president and parliament.

“This is the last day of the Mubarak regime,” he said confidently.

A graphic designer named Horus after the ancient Egyptian god, said: “This is the first time in 30 years we feel proud to be Egyptians. We had become numb, we are surprised to take things into our own hands.”

The overwhelming majority of the men and women, whatever their background and fortunes, focused on the regime’s massive corruption and the lack of jobs, healthcare and decent education.

Architect Amir Raouf was particularly angry about human rights abuses and soaring corruption. He said: “Mubarak made two fatal mistakes. During the era torture . . . was used against every Egyptian and the millions of pounds stolen in corruption under Sadat [Mubarak’s predecessor] became hundreds of billions.”

Men and women knelt on the ground painting slogans on sheets of paper and cardboard. Others sat in circles on the sparse grass, smoking and gossiping.

Muhammad, a Nubian taxi driver holding up a sign reading “Goooooo” said: “I have to pay for medicine for my wife who is diabetic. I have to pay a teacher to teach my children at home, I get nothing from the government. Tell the people in the West we are not like Iran. There cannot be an Islamic regime in Egypt. He said he would continue to come to the square to protest until Mubarak leaves. “I have not worked in 10 days but I have enough food at home for a week.”

As I walked toward the Nile-side exit, which was crammed with people entering Tahrir, a young man in a blue jersey smiled. “Thank you for coming,” he said, as if I had been attending a tea party, not a revolution.

A soldier on a tank ordered newcomers to make room for me to pass. Hundreds of people were still streaming across Qasr al-Nil, walking between the bridge’s benevolent cast-iron lions who smiled gently on the vast throng of Egyptian lions challenging not only the Mubarak regime but the western powers that helped keep him in power for three decades.