Protesters fill Tahrir Square for 'Day of Departure' rally; journalists targeted

Protesters are again filling Cairo's Tahrir Square in what is expected to be the climax of the recent anti-Mubarak movement. Elizabeth Palmer reports from a nearby hotel overlooking the Tahrir Square.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 4, 2011; 10:20 AM

CAIRO - Vast crowds of anti-government demonstrators filled Tahrir Square Friday chanting for the immediate ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, while journalists trying to cover the protests continued to face hostility and attacks.

Friday's gathering was calm and orderly, without the beatings and bloodshed that sparked outrage a day earlier. But at nearby hotels, foreign journalists were being ordered out of their rooms or refused entry, even if they already had reservations. And the al-Jazeera television network said its Cairo office had been stormed and burned by "gangs of thugs" who destroyed their reporting and broadcasting equipment.

In the last week, al-Jazeera's bureau was forcibly closed, its journalists' press credentials were revoked and nine journalists were detained, the network said in a statement. The network has also faced unprecedented levels of interference in its broadcast signal, as well as persistent and repeated attempts to bring down its Web sites.

"We are grateful for the support we have received from across the world for our coverage in Egypt," al-Jazeera said, "and can assure everyone that we will continue our work undeterred."

The army presence outside Tahrir Square seemed substantially bigger Friday than it had been earlier in the week, with soldiers maintaining a tight security perimeter and patrolling on rooftops of nearby buildings.

In the early afternoon, al-Jazeera reported that Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister of Egypt, had entered the square. Moussa is seen by many as a more likely replacement for Mubarak than Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei - the favorite of many demonstrators - because he hasn't been outside the country for most of his career.

Moussa told France's Europe 1 radio that he was "at the disposal of my country. . . ready to serve as a citizen who has the right to be a candidate" for president.

Organizers have dubbed Friday the "Day of Departure," in hopes that, finally, their protests would succeed in compelling Mubarak to leave.

Anxious to move Mubarak out of the way, but wary of appearing to try to impose a plan, the White House authorized a senior official to deny media accounts that the administration had formulated a specific proposal for the contours of a new government. "It's simply wrong to report that there's a single U.S. plan that's being negotiated," the official said.

In an interview Thursday, Mubarak told ABC that he had told President Obama: "You don't understand the Egyptian culture and what would happen if I step down now." The 82-year-old authoritarian, in power for three decades, has said he will leave office after elections that are scheduled for later this year.

After standing in long lines to pass through security checkpoints, thousands upon thousands of Egyptians entered the vast, open square and performed the weekly Friday prayers, kneeling and prostrating themselves in accordance with the muezzin's call.

When the huge throngs finished praying, they began to chant.

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