Army tells protesters to help Egypt return to normal

Filed on February 2, 2011
Army tells protesters to help Egypt return to normal

CAIRO - The Egyptian armed forces told protesters demanding an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-rule that their demands had been heard and it was time for them to help Egypt return to normal life.

It was a clear call for protesters to leave the streets.

“The army forces are calling on you ... You began by going out to express your demands and you are the ones capable of restoring normal life,” a spokesman said, adding that the message and demands had been heard.

The message, made by a military spokesman on state television, was a clear call for protesters to leave the streets and sets up a possible confrontation if they failed to do so.

The army delivered the warning as international pressure grew on Mubarak to quit after his closest ally, the United States, told him bluntly that the political change demanded by Egyptians must begin immediately.

In Cairo, crowds were building up in Tahrir (Liberation) Square for a ninth day of protests to try to force out Mubarak, rejecting his promise late on Tuesday that he would not stand in elections scheduled for September.

But as the crisis intensified, it looked like the armed forces, a powerful national institution, held the key to its resolution.

“The army forces are calling on you. You began by going out to express your demands and you are the ones capable of restoring normal life,” the spokesman said, addressing the protesters.

Meanwhile the ripple effect of the Egyptian uprising spread across the Middle East, with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh saying on Wednesday he was ready to give up power in 2013.

US President Barack Obama spoke to Mubarak for half an hour by telephone on Tuesday night after the 82-year-old Egyptian strongman announced his plan to step down in September.

“What is clear and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now,” Obama said after speaking to him.

The conversation was frank and direct and left no doubt that “the time for transition is now, it can’t be put off,” a senior US official said in Washington.

Pressure also came from Turkey, an important diplomatic voice in the Muslim world. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said Mubarak’s plan step down did not meet the people’s expectations and the change should begin sooner rather than later.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy also called for a rapid transition “without delay”.

International backing for Mubarak, for three decades a stalwart of the West’s Middle East policy and styled as a bulwark against the spread of militant Islam, has crumbled as he tried to brazen out the crisis. Some of the few words of encouragement for him have come from oil-giant Saudi Arabia, a country seen by many analysts as vulnerable to a similar outbreak of discontent.

Mubarak’s offer to step down in September was his latest gambit in a crisis that erupted last week as public frustration with corruption, oppression and economic hardship boiled over.

At the weekend he reshuffled his cabinet and promised reform but it was not enough for the protesters. One million took to the streets of Cairo and other cities on Tuesday calling for him to quit.

At least 1,500 people were in Tahrir Square again on Wednesday morning. Many had camped in tents and under blankets, determined to stay until Mubarak goes.

Banners measuring some 20 metres long read: “The people demand the fall of the regime.” Many downtown shops remained closed.

Retired diplomat Mohammed ElBaradei, who has emerged as a leading figure in the opposition, was quoted by CNN as calling Mubarak’s move a “trick”.

Army Role Crucial

Many see the army as trying to ensure a transition of power that would allow it to retain much of its influence. It has promised not to fire on protesters and called their demands legitimate.

But some analysts said tensions could rise even within the army if Mubarak were to hang on too long, and if senior officers were seen to be protecting a leader who had lost legitimacy.

“The longer this goes on, the more people will associate the military top brass with Mubarak. That is very dangerous,” said Faysal Itani, deputy head of Middle East and North Africa Forecasting at Exclusive Analysis.

Mubarak’s departure would reconfigure the politics of the Middle East, with implications from Israel — which signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 — to Saudi Arabia.

Just four weeks since the death of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian who set himself on fire to protest at oppression and corruption, the wave of anger he set in motion has gathered strength across the region.

King Abdullah of Jordan replaced his prime minister on Tuesday after protests.

The unrest has sent oil prices higher on fears of trouble in Saudi Arabia and on Egypt’s Suez Canal. That in turn has raised worries about a further rise in inflation, increasing the potential for social unrest far beyond the Middle East.

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