No takers for Mubarak’s new carrot

Egyptians staged one of their biggest protests yet on Tuesday demanding President Hosni Mubarak step down now, their wrath undiminished by the vice president’s announcement of a plan to transfer power.

With the government refusing to budge on the demonstrators’ main demands, Vice President Omar Suleiman promised no reprisals against the protesters for their campaign now entering a third week to eject Mubarak.

Those camped on Cairo’s central Tahrir Square accused the government of merely playing for time, and swore they would not give up until the current “half revolution” was complete.

Tens of thousands of protesters poured into the square, filling it completely for the third time since the protests began on Jan. 25. Many said it was their first time participation.

“I came here for the first time today because this Cabinet is a failure, Mubarak is still meeting the same ugly faces,” said Afaf Naged, 71, a former member of the board of directors of the state-owned National Bank of Egypt. “He can’t believe it is over. He is a very stubborn man.”

Mubarak set up a committee Tuesday to recommend constitutional amendments to relax presidential eligibility rules and impose term limits. Mubarak’s decrees were announced on state TV by Suleiman, who also said that Mubarak would set up a separate committee to monitor the implementation of all proposed reforms. The two committees will start working immediately, he said.

Talks between the government and opposition factions took place on Sunday under the gaze of a giant portrait of Mubarak.

But people on Tahrir Square were skeptical about the talks and suspicious of Mubarak’s motives. Youssef Hussein, a 52-year-old driver from Aswan, held up a sign saying: “Dialogue prolongs the life of the regime and gives it the kiss of life. No dialogue until Mubarak leaves.” “This dialogue is just on paper, it is just political maneuvering to gain time,” said Sayed Hagaz from the Nile Delta.

Some normality is returning to Cairo. Traffic was bumper-to- bumper in the city center on Tuesday and queues quickly built up at banks, which have so far opened only for restricted hours.

A young leader of Egypt’s anti-government protesters, newly released from detention, joined the massive crowd for the first time Tuesday, greeted by cheers, whistling and thunderous applause when he declared: “We will not abandon our demand and that is the departure of the regime.”

Many in the crowd said they were inspired by Wael Ghonim, the 30-year-old Google Inc. marketing manager who was a key organizer of the online campaign that sparked the first protest on Jan. 25 to demand the ouster of Mubarak. Straight from his release from 12 days of detention, Ghonim gave an emotionally charged television interview Monday night where he sobbed over those who have been killed in two weeks of clashes.

He spoke softly and briefly to the huge crowd from a stage, starting by offering his condolences to the families of those killed.

“I’m not a hero but those who were martyred are the heroes,” he said, then breaking into a chant of “Mubarak leave, leave.”

About 130,000 people have joined a Facebook group nominating Ghonim to be the spokesman of their uprising.

The page is called “I delegate Wael Ghonim to speak in the name of Egypt’s revolutionaries.” In his first television interview, Ghonim dubbed the protests “the revolution of the youth of the Internet” and proclaimed defiantly: “We are not traitors.”

The turnout gave a resounding answer to the question of whether the protesters still have momentum even though two weeks of steadfast pressure have not achieved their goal of ousting Mubarak.

“The (Wael) interview showed a face of the truth which the state media tried to cover up for so long,” said retired Army General Essam Salem. “Many people are coming because they saw the truth.”

Fifi Shawqi, a 33-year-old upper-class housewife who came with her three daughters and sister to the Tahrir protest for the first time, said Ghonim inspired her.

Even government employees joined the crowed, including about 5,000 university professors and teachers who failed in an earlier attempt to march on the Interior Ministry, where they were blocked by security.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday said it was “critical” that Egypt’s government fulfill its promises and move ahead with a democratic transition after days of mass street protests. Gates, in his first public remarks on the unrest, told reporters the transition from Mubarak’s rule needed to be orderly but continue to “move forward.” – Arab News