CAIRO – Protesters intensified their campaign on Monday to force Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak to quit as world leaders struggled to find a solution to a crisis that has torn up the Middle East political map.
Crowds flocked in the morning to Tahrir Square, which has become the focus of the uprising over poverty, corruption and unemployment, to join protesters who had camped out overnight in defiance of a curfew imposed by Mubarak.
Soldiers checked IDs but the crowd steadily grew, chanting “Down, down, Mubarak.”
The uprising against Mubarak’s 30-year-rule, now in its sixth day, unnerved global markets. Share prices fell across Asia on Monday morning, Brent oil hit a 28-month high, and Egypt’s financial markets were closed for a second day in a row.
The mood between the troops and the protesters in the square remained generally relaxed, with people sharing food and standing by tanks daubed with anti-Mubarak graffiti.
The army appears to hold the key to Mubarak’s fate but although the generals have held back from crushing the revolt, they have also not withdrawn support for Mubarak.
“The army has to choose between Egypt and Mubarak,” read one banner in Tahrir Square.
The protests in the world’s most populous Arab nation broke out last week when frustration over repression and the lack of democracy under Mubarak’s rule boiled over.
More than 100 people were killed in clashes with security forces in scenes that overturned Egypt’s standing as a stable country, promising emerging market and attractive tourist destination.
Mubarak, a close U.S. ally and a stalwart in Western policy toward the Middle East, responded by offering economic reform to address public anger at rising prices.
He also sacked his cabinet and appointed a vice president and new prime minister. Both, however, were military men and the moves have done nothing to appease a protest movement who want him and his associates from the old guard to be swept away.
The United States, which has poured billions of dollars of aid into Egypt since Mubarak came to power, stopped short of saying openly that it wanted him out. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton instead urged reform and spoke about “an orderly transition.”
A senior U.S. official, who declined to be identified, said the feeling among Obama’s national security aides was that Mubarak’s time had passed, but it was up to Egyptians to determine what happens next.
Washington has long seen Mubarak as a bulwark in the Middle East, first against communism then against militant Islam.
As the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, it plays a key part in the peace process, and a change in administration could have big implications for those efforts.
The West’s dilemma was summed up by Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, who said in Vienna:
“There is nothing better we can do at the moment. At the end of the day this is a revolution … and from past examples we have to wait and see how it ends.
The crisis in Egypt follows a revolt that toppled the leader of Tunisia three weeks ago and the wave of popular anger is also sweeping other countries in North Africa and the Middle East.
An Egyptian opposition coalition that includes the Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood has turned to Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the U.N. nuclear agency, to form a national unity government and make contact with the military.
ElBaradei, a Nobel peace laureate and retired diplomat, has urged Obama to call time on Mubarak.
“It is better for President Obama not to appear that he is the last one to say to President Mubarak, ‘It’s time for you to go’,” he told CNN.
ElBaradei disappointed the opposition by spending much of his time abroad since he first launched a campaign calling for political reform in Egypt last year, but lends the weight of his international reputation to a movement that lacks a leader.
EVERYONE ASKS FOR MONEY
Foreign governments scrambled to ensure the safety of their nationals trapped by the unrest. One group of tourists was hunkered down in the Marriott Hotel in the Egyptian capital waiting to be taken to the airport.
“I had heard a lot about Egypt’s history and the pyramids so I am very disappointed I cannot see all that, but I just want to get out,” said Albert So, an accountant from Hong Kong.
American Susan Market, 43, from Ohio, said she ran into trouble in Luxor and was hit by teargas from a demonstration.
“I know what is happening and why, people here are in poverty. I saw it in the streets, people were asking for a dollar to take a picture. You can tell people are poor, you can tell there is a division between rich and poor, people were asking for money all the time.”
Security, which disintegrated on Saturday and Sunday when police withdrew from the streets, has slowly been restored. Extra troops sent into cities across Egypt helped calm panicked residents and stop looting.
While the army has sought to stop lawlessness, there is no sign it is willing to drive the protesters off the street.
“We will allow protests in the coming days. Everyone has the right to voice their opinion. We’re listening and trying to help and satisfy all parties,” said Brigadier Atef Said in Suez, east of Cairo and the scene of some of the worst of the violence between police and protesters, adding:
“We’re not here to stop anyone. These are our people.”
(Additional reporting by Dina Zayed, Marwa Awad, Shaimaa Fayed, Sherine El Madany, Yasmine Saleh, Alison Williams and Samia Nakhoul in Cairo, Alexander Dziadosz in Suez, Matt Spetalnick and Phil Stewart in Washington and Peter Apps and William Maclean in London; Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Peter Millership.)
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