Cairo protesters gather for a "Day of Departure" rally in Tahrir… (Hannibal Hanschke / EPA )
CAIRO — Thousands of anti-government demonstrators rallied in the capital's center demanding their president step down after days of protest and violence that have shaken the Arab world.
"Leave! Leave!" the waves of protesters roared, pumping their fists at the end of Friday prayers as a helicopter buzzed over head. "We are not leaving. You are leaving," they yelled, drowning out the helicopter's drone.
Nationalist songs blared from speakers as hundreds more people streamed in through lines of razor wire rolled out by the Egyptian army to control the crowds entering on the day the demonstrators had billed the deadline for President Hosni Mubarak to step down.
"Where are you, freedom? Mubarak is standing between us," they chanted thunderously. "He is going to leave," others bellowed at a rally that the protesters have advertised as the "day of departure.'
Men and women carried helmets to wear in case violence once more erupts in Tahrir Square, which has been the battleground for the struggle between the nation's pro and anti-Mubarak supporters.
The protesters waved Egyptian flags and wondered what would come: Would it be a day of victory or one of heartache and more bloodshed if the government decides to suppress their nearly two-week campaign to end Mubarak's decades-long reign.
The square has witnessed tense medieval-like scenes of anti-government protesters battling back Mubarak supporters who have attacked them with rocks and firebombs, since Wednesday.
But on Friday morning, calm reigned. Men with bandaged eyes sat eating cheese sandwiches in a street of rubble and torched cars. The highway overpass, where pro-Mubarak demonstrators rallied to charge their square, was empty, with a robust Egyptian military presence guarding the flashpoint. Even Egypt's defense minister inspected the square's security measures eager to prevent another day of bloodshed.
After the Egyptian army stood by Wednesday letting pro-Mubarak demonstrators storm the square, resulting in the death of least six anti-government demonstrators, senior government officials spoke in conciliatory tones Thursday, promising concessions and calling for talks with opposition groups. But the gesture has come too late for many protesters who now want nothing less than Mubarak's departure.
Mubarak, 82, has refused to cede power, even in the face of strong prodding by the White House to ease tensions quickly.
He told ABC News on Thursday that there would be chaos if he acceded to demonstrators' demands and asserted that his departure would pave the way for a takeover by Islamists.
Mubarak has already said he will not seek reelection in September, but protest leaders have rejected the idea of his staying on in the meantime.
The crowds Friday were reminiscent of the peaceful rallies, attended by families, professionals, Islamists, women in designer clothes and male hipsters in tattered sports coats, after the demonstrators survived wave after wave of police attacks last weekend. A celebratory and peaceful mood had reigned, as the Egyptians reveled in their new-found power to challenge the president.
But the sudden violence in the last 48 hours had cast an ugly pallor on the square. Then a martial atmosphere reigned as men erected barriers to hold off the mobs and fashioned weapons from scraps of metal and chunks of concrete.
But Friday, men gathered in a circle and danced, clapping in song, hopeful that victory was near, as rumors whirled outside of police roaming the city and blocking Egyptians from gathering in Tahrir square.
The prayer leader for the outdoor sermon surveyed the sea of people who stood together in silence and urged them to hold their ground, now was not the time to compromise.
"Stay in your place. Here is where the revolution started and you should stay until the end," said Sheik Mohammed Hassan.
The cheers and sermon were a stark rebuttal to the appeal of Mubarak's newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, on Thursday. In a state television interview, Suleiman had offered an olive branch to the protesters. He had called for dialogue with the government's critics and repeated an offer to negotiate with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's longtime opposition group that has been banned by the government.
But the Brotherhood and its fellow opposition parties have called it too little to late. They want to see Mubarak gone before any talks begin.
In the meantime, the crowds kept up their defenses in case any sudden danger materialized Friday.
On a side street, men made ready to make their stand on a street lined with travel agencies, airline offices and a Mobil gas station. The first line of defense was a barricade assembled from a wrecked blue police bus and a mass of torn-up metal railings and sheet metal. Fifty yards down the street, the defenders lined up in ranks five deep, some clutching wooden clubs.