CAIRO – Egyptian protesters on Monday called for an indefinite general strike and a “million man march” on Tuesday in Cairo, upping the stakes in their bid to topple President Hosni Mubarak’s creaking regime.
“It was decided overnight that there will be a million man march on Tuesday,” Eid Mohammed, one of the protesters and organisers, told AFP.
“We have also decided to begin an open-ended general strike,” he said.
The strike was first called by workers at a factory in the canal city of Suez late on Sunday.
“We will be joining the Suez workers and begin a general strike until our demands are met,” Mohammed Waked, another protest organiser, told AFP.
In Cairo’s Tahrir square, hundreds of protesters camped out overnight, determined to escalate the biggest anti-government protests in three decades.
An increasingly embattled Mubarak appointed the first vice president in his 30-year-rule, and a new prime minister in a desperate attempt to hold on to power.
Egypt ordered riot police back onto the streets nationwide two days after they virtually disappeared as the army was deployed to deal with the revolt, but few police were visible on Monday morning.
Inhabitants spat at a solitary police car driving through a Cairo residential neighbourhood, an AFP correspondent reported.
Many Cairo men are exhausted, taking part in neighbourhood vigilante groups protecting their homes from looters by night and protesting during the day.
Mubarak, who sacked his cabinet on Friday, tasked his new prime minister on Sunday to ram through democratic reforms.
His instructions to Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq were read out on state television late on Sunday but had no discernible effect on protesters bunkered down in Tahrir square vowing not to leave until he steps down.
Mubarak also said the new prime minister’s priority was creating new jobs.
“Above all that, and concurrent with it, I emphasise the importance of urgently, completely, effectively taking new and continuous steps for more political reforms, constitutional and legislative, through dialogue with all parties,” Mubarak told Shafiq.
He also instructed the new cabinet, whose members have not yet been named, to end corruption and restore trust in the country’s economy.
But the announcement created little excitement among the more than 1,000 people encamped Monday at Tahrir square, the protest epicentre, some sleeping but many more marching and chanting “We will stay in the square, until the coward leaves.”
The army has positioned tanks around the area and was checking identity papers but letting protesters in. Civilian popular committee members were also checking papers to make sure no plainclothes police get in.
“We are looking for police trouble makers, they want to come in and break our unity,” said a popular committee member who asked not to be named.
Nearby soldiers scrubbed furiously at their tanks in a bid to wash off some of the anti-Mubarak graffiti they have been covered in over the last three days, as officers looked on.
Top dissident Mohamed ElBaradei late Sunday told a sea of angry protesters in the square that they were beginning a new era.
The Nobel laureate, who was mandated by Egyptian opposition groups including the banned Muslim Brotherhood to negotiate with Mubarak’s regime, hailed “a new Egypt in which every Egyptian lives in freedom and dignity.”
“We are on the right path, our strength is in our numbers,” ElBaradei said in his first address on Tahrir square. “I ask you to be patient, change is coming.”
“We will sacrifice our soul and our blood for the nation,” the angry crowd shouted. “The people want to topple the president.”
Brotherhood leaders Essam el-Erian and Saad el-Katatni, who walked out of prison earlier on Sunday after their guards fled, also addressed the crowd.
“They tried every way to stop the revolution of the people but we will be steadfast regardless of how many martyrs fall,” Erian said.
The protests against Mubarak’s three-decade rule have shaken Egypt and left at least 125 people dead as the veteran leader clings to power.
A curfew slapped on Cairo, Alexandria and Suez on Friday was further extended on Sunday from 3:00 pm to 8:00 am, state television said, leaving citizens only seven hours a day to take to the street.
Mubarak has struggled to placate a nation angry at his autocratic rule with token gestures such as sacking the government.
Several foreign governments said they would evacuate their nationals, while the United States authorised the departure of embassy families.
Mubarak on Sunday met with army brass seen as holding the key to his future as warplanes roared low over the downtown Cairo protest in an apparent show of force.
State television said he visited central military command where he met his newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, the intelligence chief.
Mubarak, a former air force chief, appeared to be bolstering his army support as he faces down the revolt.
Washington, a key ally of Egypt, called on Mubarak to do more to defuse the crisis, with President Barack Obama voicing support for “an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”
With fears of insecurity rising, thousands of convicts have broken out of prisons across Egypt after they overwhelmed guards or after prison personnel fled their posts.
Troops set up checkpoints on roads to riot-hit prisons, stopping and searching cars for prisoners on the run.
Among those who escaped were senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as members of Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, some of whom made it back to the Gaza Strip through smuggling tunnels.
Groups of club-carrying vigilantes have deployed on Cairo’s streets to protect property from looters amid growing insecurity as the Arab world’s most populous nation faced an uncertain future.
Many petrol stations are running out of fuel, motorists said, and many bank cash machines have either been looted or no longer work.