CAIRO – Egypt's military promised Monday not to fire on any peaceful protests and recognized "the legitimacy of the people's demands," a sign army support for President Hosni Mubarak may be unraveling. Protesters planned a major escalation, calling for a million people to take to the streets to push Mubarak out of power.
More than 10,000 people beat drums, played music and chanted slogans in Tahrir Square, which has become ground zero of seven days of protests demanding the ouster of the 82-year-old president who has ruled with an authoritarian hand for nearly three decades.
With the organizers' calling for a march by one million people Tuesday, the vibe in the sprawling plaza — whose name in Arabic means "Liberation" — was intensifying with the feeling that the upheaval was nearing a decisive point. "He only needs a push," was one of the most frequent chants, and one leaflet circulated by some protesters said it was time for the military to choose between Mubarak and the people.
The latest gesture by Mubarak aimed at defusing the crisis fell flat. His top ally, the United States, roundly rejected his announcement of a new government Monday that dropped his interior minister, who heads police forces and was widely denounced by the protesters. The crowds in the streets were equally unimpressed.
"It's almost the same government, as if we are not here, as if we are sheep," sneered one protester, Khaled Bassyouny, a 30-year-old Internet entrepreneur. He said it was time to escalate the marches. "It has to burn. It has to become ugly. We have to take it to the presidential palace."
Another concession came later Monday night, when Vice President Omar Suleiman — who was appointed by Mubarak only two days earlier — went on state TV to announce that the president had tasked him to immediately begin dialogue with "political forces" for constitutional and legislative reforms.
Suleiman, a longtime Mubarak confidant, did not say what the changes would entail or which groups the government would speak with. Opposition forces have long demanded a lifting of strict restrictions on who is eligible to run for president to allow a real challenge to the ruling party, as well as measures to ensure elections are fair. A presidential election is scheduled for September.
In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs dismissed the naming of the new government, saying the situation in Egypt calls for action, not appointments.
The State Department said Monday that a retired senior diplomat — former ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner — was now on the ground in Cairo and will meet Egyptian officials to urge them to embrace broad economic and political changes that can pave the way for free and fair elections.
The military statement, aired on state TV, was the strongest sign yet that the army was willing to let the protests continue and even grow as long as they remain peaceful, even if that leads to the fall of Mubarak. If the president, a former air force commander, loses the support of the military, it would likely be a fatal blow to his rule.
For days, army tanks and troops have surrounded Tahrir Square, keeping the protests confined but doing nothing to stop people from joining.
Military spokesman Ismail Etman said the army realizes "the legitimacy of the people's demands." He said the military "has not and will not use force against the public" and underlined that the "the freedom of peaceful expression is guaranteed for everyone."
He added the caveats, however, that protesters should not commit "any act that destabilizes security of the country" or damage property.
Looting that erupted over the weekend across the city of around 18 million eased — but Egyptians endured another day of the virtual halt to normal life that the crisis has caused, raising fears of damage to the economy if the crisis drags on. Trains stopped running Monday, possibly an attempt by authorities to prevent residents of the provinces from joining protests in the capital.
A curfew was imposed for a fourth straight day — starting an hour earlier at 3 p.m. Banks, schools and the stock market in Cairo were closed for the second working day, making cash tight. An unprecedented complete shutdown of the Internet was also in its fourth day. Long lines formed outside bakeries as people tried to replenish their stores of bread.
Cairo's international airport was a scene of chaos and confusion as thousands of foreigners sought to flee the unrest, and countries around the world scrambled to send in planes to fly their citizens out.
Some incidents of looting continued. In Cairo, soldiers detained about 50 men trying to break into the Egyptian National Museum in a fresh attempt to loot some of the country's archaeological treasures, the military said. An attempt to break into an antiquities storehouse at the famed Pharaonic Karnak Temple in the ancient southern city of Luxor was also foiled.
The official death toll from the crisis stood at 97, with thousands injured, but reports from witnesses across the country indicated the actual toll was far higher.
Mubarak appeared fatigued as he was shown on state TV swearing in the members of his new Cabinet. The most significant change in the shakeup was the replacement of the interior minister, Habib el-Adly, who heads internal security forces and is widely despised by protesters for the brutality some officers have shown. A retired police general, Mahmoud Wagdi, will replace him.
Of the 29-member Cabinet, 14 were new faces, most of them not members of the ruling National Democratic Party. Among those purged were several of the prominent businessmen who held economic posts and have engineered the country's economic liberalization policies the past decades. Many Egyptians resented the influence of millionaire politician-moguls, who were close allies of the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, long thought to be the heir apparent.
Mubarak retained his long-serving defense minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
A major question throughout the unprecedented unrest has been whether protests that began as a decentralized eruption of anger largely by grassroots activists can coalesce into a unified political leadership to press demands and keep up momentum. There were signs Monday of an attempt to do so, as around 30 representatives from various opposition groups met to work out a joint stance.
The gathering issued the call for Tuesday's escalated protests but did not reach a final agreement on a list of demands. They were to meet again Tuesday to try to do so and decide whether to make prominent reform advocate Mohamed ElBaradei spokesman for the protesters, said Abu'l-Ela Madi , the spokesman of one of the participating groups, al-Wasat, a moderate breakaway faction from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Unity is far from certain among the array of movements involved in the protests, with sometimes conflicting agendas — including students, online activists, grassroots organizers, old-school opposition politicians and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, along with everyday citizens drawn by the exhilaration of marching against the government.
The various protesters have little in common beyond the demand that Mubarak go. Perhaps the most significant tensions among them is between young secular activists and the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to form an Islamist state in the Arab world's largest nation. The more secular are deeply suspicious the Brotherhood aims to co-opt what they contend is a spontaneous, popular movement. American officials have suggested they have similar fears.
ElBaradei, a pro-democracy advocate and former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, invigorated anti-Mubarak feeling with his return to Egypt last year, but the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood remains Egypt's largest opposition movement.
In a nod to the suspicions, Brotherhood figures insist they are not seeking a leadership role.
"We don't want to harm this revolution," Mohamed Mahdi Akef, a former leader of the group.
Still, Brotherhood members appeared to be joining the protest in greater numbers and more openly. During the first few days of protests, the crowd in Tahrir Square was composed of mostly young men in jeans and t-shirts. On Monday, many of the volunteers handing out food and water to protesters are men in long traditional dress with the trademark Brotherhood appearance — a closely cropped haircut and bushy beards.
AP correspondents Sarah El Deeb, Lee Keath and Michael Weissenstein in Cairo contributed to this report.