250,000 fill square as Mubarak protest escalates

Tuesday 01 February 2011 19:02 GMT

More than 250,000 people joined a mass protest in Cairo's main square today in the largest protest yet in a week of unrelenting demands for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave after nearly 30 years in power.

The crowds - a huge array of young and old, urban poor and middle class professionals - filled Tahrir, or Liberation, Square and spilled into nearby streets in a determined but peaceful protest.

They sang nationalist songs, danced, beat drums and chanted the anti-Mubarak slogan "Leave, leave, leave!" as military helicopters buzzed overhead.

Organisers said the aim was to intensify marches to get the president out of power by Friday, and similar demonstrations erupted in at least five other cities around Egypt.

Soldiers at checkpoints set up at the entrances of the square did nothing to stop the crowds from entering, a day after the military vowed not to fire on protesters.

If he leaves office, Mr Mubarak, 82, would be the second Arab leader pushed out by a popular uprising in the history of the modern Middle East, following the ejection last month of Tunisia's president.

The movement to drive Mr Mubarak out has been built on the work of online activists and fuelled by deep frustration with an autocratic regime blamed for ignoring the needs of the poor and allowing corruption and official abuse to run rampant.

The repercussions were being felt around the Middle East, as other authoritarian governments fearing popular discontent pre-emptively tried to burnish their democratic image.

Jordan's King Abdullah II fired his government today in the face of smaller street protests, named an ex-prime minister to form a new cabinet and ordered him to launch political reforms.

The Palestinian cabinet in the West Bank said it would hold long-promised municipal elections "as soon as possible".

With Mr Mubarak's hold on power in Egypt weakening, the world was forced to plan for the end of a regime that has maintained three decades of peace with Israel and is a bulwark against Islamic militants.

The chairman of the powerful US Senate foreign relations committee, Senator John Kerry, gave public voice to what senior Washington officials have said only privately in recent days: that Mr Mubarak should "step aside gracefully to make way for a new political structure".

The US ambassador in Cairo, Margaret Scobey, spoke by telephone today with prominent democracy advocate Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei.

Mr ElBaradei has taken a key role with other opposition groups in formulating the movement's demands for Mr Mubarak to step down and allow a transitional government paving the way for free elections.

Meanwhile, the United States ordered non-essential government personnel and their families to leave Egypt in an indication of the deepening concern over the situation.

They joined a wave of people rushing to flee the country - several thousand overwhelmed Cairo's international airport again today and threw it into chaos.

The official death toll from the crisis stood at 97, with thousands injured, thought reports from witnesses across the country indicated the actual toll was far higher.

But the protests have been far more peaceful in recent days, after the military replaced the police in keeping control and took a policy of letting the demonstrations continue.

Egypt's army leadership has reassured the US that the military does not intend to crack down on demonstrators, but instead is allowing the protesters to "wear themselves out", according to one US officials

Tens of thousands of people also rallied today in the cities of Alexandria, Suez and Mansoura, north of Cairo, as well as in the southern province of Assiut and Luxor.

President Mubarak will make "important speech" shortly, state TV said tonight.

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