Cairo. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak appointed a new interior minister on Monday as part of a revamped cabinet designed to defuse the most serious challenge to his rule in three decades.
But it was not immediately clear if the line-up, which now includes three former senior officers at the top, and promises of reform would be enough to mollify opposition groups and protesters calling for Mubarak and the old guard to step down.
As the unprecedented unrest in the Arab world’s most populous nation entered its seventh day, thousands of protesters poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square chanting “Get out. We want you out” and singing Egypt’s national anthem.
Soldiers looked on without taking action, which would have been inconceivable just a week ago.
World leaders were trying to figure out how to respond to a crisis that threatens to tear up the Middle East political map.
The protests broke out last week when frustration over repression, corruption and the lack of democracy under Mubarak’s 30-year-rule boiled over.
More than 100 people have been killed in clashes with police in scenes that overturned Egypt’s standing as a stable country, promising emerging market and attractive tourist destination.
Mubarak, a close United States ally and a stalwart in Western policy towards the Middle East, responded by offering economic reform to address public anger over hardships.
The army now appears to hold the key to his fate. Although the generals have held back from crushing the revolt, they have not withdrawn support for Mubarak.
Mubarak on Monday named General Mahmoud Wagdy, previously head of Cairo criminal investigations department, as
Wagdy’s predecessor was reviled by many Egyptians because of the repressive tactics used by the police to quash the opposition and criticism of the president.
In the early days of the uprising no clear political opposition grouping was evident. But on Monday the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist opposition group, said it was seeking to form a broad political committee with Mohamed ElBaradei to talk to the army.
ElBaradei, a Nobel peace laureate and former head of the United Nations nuclear agency, has urged Mubarak to go and lent his international stature to a movement that has lacked a leader.
The brotherhood, which has wide support among poor Egyptians, has until now kept in the background of an uprising spearheaded by the young urban poor and students, fearing a harsh crackdown.
London-based Exclusive Analysis analyst Zaineb Al-Assam said he doubted Mubarak would last a month in power and that the Muslim Brotherhood, who are well organized, would do well in any election. Power in the streets had already passed to the protesters, he said.
Crowds flocked in the morning to Tahrir Square, which has become the focus of the uprising, to join protesters who had camped out overnight in defiance of a curfew imposed by Mubarak.
Witnesses said camaraderie between the protesters and soldiers was evident as they shared tea and snacks, standing by tanks daubed with anti-Mubarak graffiti.
“The army has to choose between Egypt and Mubarak,” read one banner in the square.
The anti-Mubarak movement has called a mass protest for today and says one million people could take to the streets.
Meanwhile, Egyptians are stocking up on essential, unsure of how long street demonstrations will rage.
Rafik and Leila Baladi moved back to Cairo from Canada just two weeks ago to settle down.
Now, like many other residents of the capital, they are stocking up on bottled water and essential foodstuffs as chaos engulfs this sprawling city of some 18 million.
“We just don’t know what is going to happen,” said Leila, who along with her husband was pushing a shopping cart loaded with frozen chicken breasts, fava beans, milk and other items at a grocery store in central Cairo. “People are terrified to death.”
Everyday life in Cairo has been turned upside down by the largest anti-government protests in decades in Egypt.
Schools are closed and businesses boarded up; the usual bumper-to-bumper traffic is now little more than a trickle; and the capital’s famed nightlife has been snuffed out by a curfew.
Reuters, AFP, AP