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 sign of his generals, or his U.S. allies, squeezing him out just yet.
Turnout nationwide seemed short of the million seen on Tuesday and which leaders had hoped to match on what they called “Departure Day.” Many Egyptians, weary of disorder, feel Mubarak did enough this week by pledging to step down in September. Some also were wary of renewed violence by shadowy Mubarak loyalists.
On the 11th day of unprecedented massive protests which have revolutionised Egypt and the wider Arab world, some 200,000 men and women from all walks of life streamed past patient soldiers to the capital’s Tahrir, or Liberation, Square.
A similar number marched in the second city of Alexandria and smaller pro-democracy rallies were held elsewhere.
“Leave! Leave! Leave!” crowds chanted after Friday prayers on the square in Cairo. A 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.
Yet for all the enthusiasm on the streets, and new-found tolerance by the army, Mubarak’s fate, and that of a 60-year-old system of military-backed rule, lies as much in bargains struck behind the scenes among generals keen to retain influence and Western officials anxious not to see a key Arab ally against radical Muslims slide into chaos or be taken over by Islamists.
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.
The 82-year-old president said on Thursday he was “fed up” but would not stand down because that would create chaos.
A handful of prominent figures from academia and business said they proposed a compromise under which newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman, a former intelligence chief who has the confidence of Washington, should take over real authority while Mubarak could serve out his fifth term as a figurehead leader.
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.
Food and water, medical treatment for those overcome by heat and crowding, opinions and jokes were all shared.
Away from the square, groups of Mubarak loyalists harassed journalists. Some attacked the offices of Al Jazeera television. Others tried to deter people from demonstrating. But there was little of the extreme violence seen on Wednesday and Thursday.
Earlier, the veteran defence minister visited the square, inspecting troops who were out in force promising to protect demonstrators after the bloodshed of previous days.
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.”
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 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.
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,” new Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq was quoted as saying by state media.
Shafiq’s team have taken 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.
Liberal figurehead Mohamed ElBaradei, a retired U.N. diplomat, said he too did not seek the top job, but repeated he was willing to help in a transition if Mubarak resigned now.
But Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League and former Egyptian foreign minister, said he believed Mubarak would hold on until September’s election. Though 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 to Mubarak, told France’s Europe 1 radio that he would consider standing. He later joined protesters in Tahrir Square.
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.
he 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.
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.