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Factions unite in Egyptian uprising

Pick diplomat ElBaradei to lead the negotiations

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By Anthony Shadid and David D. Kirkpatrick
New York Times / January 31, 2011

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CAIRO — Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood and the secular opposition banded together yesterday around a prominent government critic to negotiate for forces seeking the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. The army struggled to hold a capital seized by fears of chaos and buoyed by euphoria that three decades of Mubarak’s rule may be coming to an end.

The announcement that Mohamed ElBaradei would represent a loosely unified opposition reconfigured the struggle between Mubarak’s government and a six-day-old uprising bent on driving him and his party from power.

Though lacking deep support on his own, ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and diplomat, could serve as a consensus figure for a movement that has struggled to articulate a program for a potential transition. The decision suggested, too, that the opposition was aware of the uprising’s image abroad, putting forth a candidate who might be more acceptable to the West than beloved in Egypt.

In scenes as tumultuous as any since the uprising began, ElBaradei defied a government curfew and joined thousands of protesters in Liberation Square, a downtown landmark that has become the center of the uprising and a platform for the frustrations, ambitions, and resurgent pride of a generation claiming the country’s mantle.

“Today we are proud of Egyptians,’’ ElBaradei told throngs who surged toward him in a square festooned with banners calling for Mubarak’s fall. “We have restored our rights, restored our freedom, and what we have begun cannot be reversed.’’

ElBaradei declared it a “new era,’’ and as night fell there were few in Egypt who seemed to disagree.

ElBaradei also criticized President Obama’s administration. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made the rounds on the Sunday news programs in Washington with the message that Mubarak should create an “orderly transition’’ to a more politically open Egypt, while she refrained from calling on him to resign. But that approach, ElBaradei said, was “a failed policy’’ that was eroding American credibility.

“It’s 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,’ ’’ ElBaradei said.

The Interior Ministry announced it would again deploy once-ubiquitous police forces — despised by many as the symbol of the daily humiliations of Mubarak’s government — across the country, except in Liberation Square.

In a collapse of authority, the police had withdrawn from major cities on Saturday, giving free rein to gangs that stole and burned cars, looted shops, and ransacked a fashionable mall. Thousands of inmates poured out of four prisons, including the country’s most notorious, Abu Zaabal and Wadi Natroun. Checkpoints run by the military and neighborhood residents — sometimes spaced just a block apart — proliferated across Cairo and other cities in a bid to restore order.

“We’re worried about the chaos, sure,’’ said Selma al-Tarzi, 33, a film director who had joined friends in Liberation Square. “But everyone is aware the chaos is generated by the government. The revolution is not generating the chaos.’’

Still, driven by some instances of looting — and rumors that swirled across Cairo, fed by Egyptian television’s unrelenting coverage of lawlessness — it was clear that many feared the menace could worsen and might undermine protesters’ demands.

“At first the words were right,’’ said Abu Sayyid al-Sayyid, a driver. “The protests were peaceful — freedom, jobs and all that. But then the looting came and the thugs and thieves with it. Someone has to step in before there’s nothing left to step into.’’

For a government that long celebrated the mantra of Arab strongmen — security and stability — Mubarak and his officials seemed to stumble in formulating a response to the most serious challenge to his rule. Mubarak appeared on state television yesterday in a meeting with military chiefs in what was portrayed as business as usual. Through the day, the station broadcast pledges of fealty from caller after caller.

“Behind you are 80 million people, saying yes to Mubarak!’’ one declared.

That was the rarest of comments across Cairo, though, as anger grew at what residents described as treason and betrayal on the part of a reeling state.

For two days, clashes raged at Abu Zaabal, the prison north of Cairo, and officials said the police had killed at least 12 inmates there before abandoning it. Yesterday, scores of people passed in and out of the colonnaded entrance, hauling boxes and furniture through a black iron gate. Two army tanks were parked nearby but declined to intervene in the mayhem.

The Muslim Brotherhood said 34 of its members walked out of Wadi Natroun, after guards abandoned their posts. All of the men had been arrested before dawn Friday, the biggest day of the protests.

“The prisoners themselves freed us from the gang who kidnapped us, this government that has become a gang,’’ said Essam al-Iryan, one of the Brotherhood’s leaders who had been among those held.

Since the uprising began last week, the Brotherhood has taken part in the protests but shied away from a leadership role, though that appeared to change yesterday. Mohammed el-Beltagui, a key Brotherhood leader and former Parliament member, said an alliance of the protest’s more youthful leaders and older opposition figures had met again in an attempt to assemble a more unified front with a joint committee.

It included ElBaradei, along with other prominent figures like Ayman Nour and Osama al-Ghazali Harb, who have struggled to build a popular following. By far, the Brotherhood represents the most powerful force, but Beltagui and another Brotherhood official, Mohamed el-Katatni, said the group understood the implications of seeking leadership in a country still deeply divided over its religious program.

“We’re supporting ElBaradei to lead the path to change,’’ Beltagui said as he joined ElBaradei in Liberation Square. “The Brotherhood realizes the sensitivities, especially in the West, towards the Islamists, and we’re not keen to be at the forefront.’’

“We’re trying to build a democratic arena before we start playing in it,’’ he said.

Whether ElBaradei can emerge as that consensus figure remained unclear. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for his work as director of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Even in Liberation Square, the crowd’s reaction to ElBaradei was mixed. Some were sympathetic, but many more were reserved in their support for a man who spent much of his adult life abroad.

One Brotherhood supporter, Mohammed Fayed, an engineer, said that even if ElBaradei could replace Mubarak, he should stay no longer than a year: “ElBaradei doesn’t live here and doesn’t know us. We need a leader who can understand Egyptians.’’

Whatever his success, the army, long an institution shielded from criticism in the state media, was clearly still the fulcrum of events here, with a growing recognition that it would probably play the pivotal role in shaping the outcome of the unrest and in deciding who rules next.

In a show of authority, Mubarak met with Defense Minister Mohammed Tantawi and Omar Suleiman, his right-hand man and the country’s intelligence chief whom he appointed vice president on Saturday. In slogans and actions, protesters cultivated the military, too, in a bid to turn it to their side.

Across the capital, youths and some older men guarded their own neighborhoods, sometimes posting themselves at each block and alley. Several said they were in contact with the military, as well as with each other, and many residents expressed pride in the success that they had in securing their property from the threat of looters and thieves.

The sentiments captured what has become a powerful theme these days in Cairo: that Egyptians again were taking control of their destiny.

“We know each other, we stand by each other and people respect what we’re doing,’’ said Ramadan Farghal, who headed one self-defense group in the poorer neighborhood of Bassateen. “This is the Egyptian people. We used to be one hand.’’

He said about 10 youths from each building, 400 in all, were rotating in eight-hour shifts to guard the barricades and street entrances. They were helped by a few remnants from deserted units of police officers, in plain clothes.

“The good ones,’’ he said.

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