Egyptian troops let protests proceed as Mubarak names vice president
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post
CAIRO - Tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators swarmed central Cairo on Saturday in the largest demonstration yet against the rule of the country's longtime autocratic leader, President Hosni Mubarak. The crowd went unchallenged by troops, who, in extraordinary scenes unfolding around the capital's central Tahrir Square, smiled and shook hands with protesters and invited them up onto their tanks.
Meanwhile, Mubarak named a vice president for the first time since coming to power 30 years ago, a government spokesman said - an apparent step toward setting up a successor other than his son, Gamal, whom he had appeared to be grooming for the post, despite public opposition. Mubarak chose as his deputy his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, a close confidant who is well known to U.S. officials.
Even as protesters celebrated, word of Suleiman's appointment disappointed those who had expected wholesale change. "He is one of Hosni Mubarak's people, and we reject those people. The people should get to pick their leaders," said Mohammed Abdel Rahman, 25.
As a 4 p.m. curfew came and went Saturday, the square - which police had kept off-limits on Friday - was filled with people as far as the eye could see. The police seemed to have disappeared from the streets after vicious clashes the day before. The army had been hailed on the streets as a potential savior, with protesters giving soldiers thumbs up and openly imploring them to join their movement.
On Friday, the troops had appeared steadfastly neutral. Late Saturday, however, they were doing nothing to move demonstrators out of the streets, despite an earlier announcement by security services that anyone remaining in central squares or major roadways after 4 p.m. would face arrest.
Asked whether they would enforce the curfew, soldiers said they would not.
"We are with the people," said Ahmed, a 20-year-old conscript.
Soldiers accepted fruit, water and soda handed out by protesters in Tahrir Square and smiled as protesters chanted, "Go, Mubarak, go!" Children were hoisted up on tanks in the middle of the square to have their photos taken with troops as the hulking remains of the National Democratic Party headquarters building, home to Mubarak's ruling organization, burned in the background.
"These soldiers are Egyptians, too. They are suffering just like we are," said Khalid Ezz el-Din, a 50-year-old businessman who had come to the square to demand Mubarak step down.
Shortly afterward, a convoy of tanks rolled into the square, with as many as 20 protesters riding on each one. As the soldiers smiled and flashed peace signs, the protesters shouted "We are one!" and "Down with Mubarak!" Others held aloft a banner reading, "Game over, Mr. Mubarak."
"This is freedom," said Abdel Nasser Awad. "Now we know Mubarak will leave. The only question is when."
Ahmed Mahmoud, a 50 year-old purchasing manager, said that for the first time he felt proud to be an Egyptian.