Friday, January 28, 2011
Police fought protesters in two cities in eastern Egypt Thursday and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei arrived back in the country to join a major demonstration Friday to try to oust President Hosni Mubarak.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said Thursday that political reforms were “absolutely critical” to Egypt’s long-term well-being, boosting pressure on Mubarak to implement changes while acknowledging he was a critical U.S. ally.
Security forces shot dead a bedouin protester in the north of Egypt’s Sinai Thursday, bringing the death toll to seven – five protesters and two policemen.
In the Egyptian city of Suez, police fired rubber bullets, water cannon and tear gas at hundreds of demonstrators. Protesters chucked rocks and petrol bombs at police lines.
Hundreds of protesters remained on the streets of Suez late into Thursday night. Smoke from fires lit on the roads filled the air while tear gas hung in the air in some areas of the city, forcing people to cover their mouths with tissues.
In Ismailia, hundreds of protesters clashed with police who dispersed the crowds with tear gas as support spread for a planned wave of protests Friday, initiated on the Facebook social networking website.
“I will participate,” ElBaradei, who has campaigned for reform in Egypt, said on flying in from his home in Vienna, where he used to lead the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog. “I wish we did not have to go out on the streets to press the regime to act.”
In his first comments on the unrest in Egypt, Obama said Mubarak had been “very helpful on a range of tough issues in the Middle East.”
“But I’ve always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on reform – political reform, economic reform – is absolutely critical to the long-term well-being of Egypt,” Obama said in an interview with the YouTube website. “You can see these pent-up frustrations that are being displayed on the streets,” he said.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs acknowledged that Mubarak was an important U.S. partner in the Middle East but stressed that the United States was not taking sides in the Egyptian unrest. “This isn’t a choice between the government and the people of Egypt,” Gibbs said. “This is not about taking sides.”
“What is important is President Mubarak and those that seek greater freedom of expression, greater freedom to assemble, should be able to work out a process for that happening in a peaceful way,” he told a briefing.
Speaking earlier to Reuters in Vienna, ElBaradei said it was time for Mubarak to step aside. “He has served the country for 30 years and it is about time for him to retire,” said ElBaradei, who won the peace prize for his work at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif urged citizens to exercise self control Friday, the cabinet spokesman told reporters.
Egyptians torched a police post in Suez Thursday in response to the killing of three demonstrators earlier in the week, a Reuters witness said.
In another boost to the protest movement, the country’s largest opposition group – the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood – said in a statement posted on its website that it would take part in Friday’s protests.
Egypt’s ruling party said it was ready for a dialogue with the public but offered no concessions to address their demands.
“We are confident of our ability to listen. The NDP is ready for a dialogue with the public, youth and legal parties,” said Safwat al-Sharif, the secretary general of the National Democratic Party. “But democracy has its rules and process. The minority does not force its will on the majority.”
ElBaradei, 68, said many Egyptians would no longer tolerate Mubarak’s government even for a transitional period, and dismissed as “obviously bogus” the suggestion that authoritarian Arab leaders like Mubarak were the only bulwark against Islamic extremism.
“If we are talking about Egypt, there is a whole rainbow variety of people who are secular, liberal, market oriented, and if you give them a chance they will organize to elect a government that is modern and moderate,” he said.
He said he was ready to “lead the transition” in Egypt if asked. – Agencies