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Egyptian police reappear alongside army as Mubarak protests enter 7th day

As Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak swore in a new Cabinet Monday thousands of angry protesters took to the streets for a seventh day demanding that he step down. (Jan. 31)

Egyptians of all political persuasions accused the much-maligned police of being behind a campaign to terrorize the country - either by perpetrating the violence themselves or by standing aside and allowing it to occur.

As hatred toward the police grew, so did admiration for the army - which might be the intent of Egypt's security establishment as it struggles to find a way out of the crisis. The apparently contradictory signals from the army suggested that the question of who will rule Egypt remains very much in doubt, nearly a week after protesters turned this country's political universe upside down with a mass mobilization that appears to be growing stronger.

It was not immediately clear Monday how the reappearance of police on the streets would impact the situation.

Attempts to organize

Opposition leaders gathered Sunday to try to organize their efforts, and they tentatively settled on pro-democracy activist and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei as their interim leader in any negotiations with the government. Baradei told reporters that he has the "popular and political support" necessary to begin the process of forming a unity government and that he would be seeking contact with the army to discuss a political transition.

But Baradei received only a lukewarm reception when he spoke later Sunday at Tahrir Square, the capital city's central plaza, and protesters said they would rather continue to operate as a diffuse people's movement than as an organized opposition. Thousands of protesters who marched peacefully under military protection vowed to stay in the square until Mubarak resigns from office.

At one point in the early afternoon, protesters and soldiers worked together to beat back two Interior Ministry vehicles that attempted to enter the site. An army commander then scaled his tank and announced to the crowd that the Interior Ministry had deployed thousands of armed men who were bent on sowing chaos in Egypt. The army, he said, "would stand with the people." The commander, dressed in camouflage battle fatigues, was cheered by the crowd and kissed on the cheek by demonstrators, who chanted, "The army and the people are one!"

That sentiment, however, was not matched by images broadcast on state television that featured the 82-year-old Mubarak alongside the military and intelligence chiefs, as well as the defense minister. In a possible indication of an ongoing power struggle, the interior minister did not appear to be present.

The army is believed to have the power to topple Mubarak if it chooses, but so far it has not done so, which might mean its gestures of solidarity with the protesters are meant only to placate the movement as the president engineers a succession plan. On Saturday, Mubarak announced that Omar Suleiman would be his vice president, making the intelligence chief the most likely possible heir to authority in a country where power typically passes from one strongman to the next.

Demonstrators are cautiously optimistic that the armed forces are on their side, but they also know that Mubarak is a former military officer who has enjoyed unbroken backing from the army for the nearly 30 years he has reigned.

Protesters on Sunday held aloft a banner reading, "The army must choose between Egypt and Mubarak." When in the late afternoon the air force dispatched the fighter jets to sweep low over Tahrir Square - their engines booming as they passed - the crowd's reaction reflected the confusion of the moment: Some protesters cheered what they saw as a show of support for their cause, while others cursed an attempt at intimidation.

Protesters have been resolute in insisting they will not accept Mubarak or any other member of the president's inner circle as their leader. The demonstrators, who proudly assert that they answer to no individual or organization, have demanded fair and free national elections to choose Egypt's president. Egyptians have never had such a choice, and a move toward democracy in this nation of 80 million would have deep reverberations across a region traditionally led by unelected autocrats.

Protesters on Sunday called on the United States to openly embrace their cause, with many saying they believed that Mubarak's ability to stay in office would hinge on whether he continues to enjoy backing from Washington.

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