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Egypt's police return; foreigners try to evacuate

In the seventh day of protests against President Hosni Mubarak, organizers call for a 'million-man march' and continue noisy demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Police are redeployed but avoid the square. Meanwhile, foreigners wait at the airport to evacuate.

January 31, 2011|By Laura King and Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Cairo — Police began returning to their posts in the Egyptian capital on Monday, seeking to restore order after days of looting, but they stayed away from the protester-thronged square that has become the epicenter of the movement to oust President Hosni Mubarak.

As the dramatic standoff entered its seventh day, protest organizers called for the biggest demonstrations yet, urging that 1 million people flood the streets Tuesday.

Defying curfews, protesters have maintained an around-the-clock presence in Tahrir Square — Liberation Square — worried that it will be sealed off by the military if they leave. Army tanks continued to ring the sprawling plaza Monday, blocking off some access routes, but people were still allowed to move in and out at several points, sometimes in queues separated by gender.

Noisy protesters alternated among speeches, prayers and anti-government chants. To keep warm overnight, crowds huddled around small campfires and shared plastic cups of tea.

Foreigners, meanwhile, mobbed Cairo's international airport, seeking a place aboard one in the trickle of evacuation flights on Monday. The State Department on Sunday had urged U.S. citizens to consider leaving and said it would charter flights for those wishing to do so. But many Americans in the Egyptian capital said they had not been able to get any information about the flights.

The redeployment of the police — who have been blamed for most of the violence against demonstrators to date — was a sensitive issue. The army, made up of conscripts, enjoys far more respect from the Egyptian people, and soldiers have been careful not to manhandle those who are protesting peacefully.

The abrupt vanishing of the police from the streets three days earlier had left a security vacuum, filled by vigilantes wielding clubs and knives to defend their neighborhoods. The ad-hoc neighborhood-watch groups managed to protect some areas against looting, but the sight of roving gangs of armed men contributed to the enveloping sense of chaos.

Demonstrations against Mubarak's rule began Jan. 25 after a popular uprising in the Arab nation of Tunisia drove longtime strongman Zine el Abidine ben Ali from power and paved the way to a transition toward democracy there.

Mubarak has clung to power and resisted demonstrators' demand that he resign, instead shutting down access to the Al Jazeera channel, the Arab world's most popular news outlet, and blocking Internet and cellphone traffic, though the latter has been partially restored.

Mubarak swore in his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, as his first-ever vice president, named a new prime minister and issued vague promises of change that have left even his most ardent supporters in the West and Israel disappointed. On Monday, state television reported the appointment of a new interior minister, but he was a ministry stalwart whose selection appeared unlikely to appease protesters.

Protesters in Cairo, Alexandria and the city of Suez have increasingly defied a curfew that has now been extended to span 3 p.m. to 8 a.m. On Monday, some of Cairo's roaring traffic returned to the streets, and shops and businesses reopened in outlying districts, though swaths of the center remained blocked off.

Activists using social-media websites such as Twitter and Facebook have begun calling for a "million-man march" against Mubarak to begin Tuesday from Tahrir Square — a call that, if heeded, could force a confrontation with the army, which so far has acted with restraint.

The mostly young protesters and the country's traditional opposition groups, including the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, have coalesced around the loose leadership of Nobel Peace Prize winner and former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei, who many say is a potential transitional figure if Mubarak steps down.

Protesters had called for a general strike Monday, but its effect was hard to gauge as banks, the stock exchange, offices and many shops were closed because of security worries.

On Tahrir Square, speakers with megaphones and voices hoarse from shouting took turns Monday keeping the crowds energized. Many said it was important to stay loud and boisterous to counter reports on state-run media that everyone had gone home and the square was empty.

Relations with the military remained generally good, but protesters whistled and waved defiantly at helicopters that flew overhead periodically and rushed to stand in front of any tanks that attempted to reposition from the square's perimeter into the plaza itself. After initially welcoming the army, protesters have grown suspicious of its aims, worried that it will use its general popularity to further Mubarak's aim of reimposing control.

Protesters said momentum was on their side.

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