Egyptians mass in Cairo to mark Mubarak fall

By Ben Hubbard

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 18 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Tens of thousands of Egyptians, some holding national flags, gather to pray and celebrate the fall of the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, and to maintain pressure on the current military rulers, in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, Egypt Friday, Feb. 18, 2011.

Khalil Hamra, Associated Press

CAIRO — Hundreds of thousands of flag-waving Egyptians packed into Cairo's central Tahrir Square in the first major rally since the fall of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak a week ago, celebrating his ouster and pressing Egypt's new military rulers to uproot the rest of his regime and steer the country toward reform.

Organizers are seeking to turn their movement, which forced Mubarak's removal after 18 days of mass protests, to now put pressure on the military to take greater action against regime figures who still hold considerable power.

Friday's crowd appeared to spiral well beyond the quarter-million that massed for the biggest of the anti-Mubarak protests. But for many, it was much a nationalist celebration of what has been accomplished as a rally to demand more. Parents painted children's faces with the national colors of black, white and red; the crowd unfurled giant Egyptian flags. Vendors hawked T-shirts praising the "Jan. 25 revolution" — a reference to the date protests began.

Protest leaders addressed the sprawling crowd, saying rallies must go on until the military meets their demands.

Protesters want the army to dissolve the caretaker government headed by Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, which was appointed by Mubarak in his final weeks and contains many of his stalwarts. They also want the lifting of emergency laws that give police near unlimited powers of arrest. So far, the military has not moved on either issue, or on another demand for the release of thousands of political prisoners.

"We'll stay in the square until there is a new government, because there is no way we will see change under a government by the National Democratic Party," proclaimed prominent TV journalist Wael el-Ibrashi, one of the speakers on a stage before the crowd, referring to Mubarak's former ruling party.

Protest organizers have called for weekly protests every Friday, and their ability to keep them going will be a major test of how much they can influence the army.

Prominent Muslim cleric Sheik Youssef el-Qaradawi, who is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, led the crowd in prayers, proclaiming, "The revolution is not over, until we have a new Egypt."

El-Qaradawi's appearance in Cairo's main square marked a dramatic return for the influential cleric, who has mostly lived abroad for decades after being jailed for his anti-government stances. During the protests, he used his weekly TV show on Al-Jazeera to urge Egyptians to join. In the square Friday, he hailed the young protest activists — from a range of ideologies — saying, "They knew that the revolution will win in the end."

In Egypt's second largest city, the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, hundreds of thousands rallied outside a main mosque, then paraded down the seafront boulevard. They shouted for the Shafiq government's removal, using the same chant as protests against Mubarak — "The people want to topple the regime." Soldiers in the streets did not interfere.

In Tahrir, the military seemed eager to encourage a festive, nationalist atmosphere: Soldiers distributed Egyptian flags to families as they streamed into the square. At one point, a military marching band paraded through the square the entertain the partygoers. Army tanks and checkpoints were stationed at entrances to the square, with soldiers checking IDs and bags of those heading in.

The Armed Forces Supreme Council, a body of top generals which forced Mubarak to resign and hand it his powers, has promised a swift transition to an elected government and president — within six months. In the final days of the protests, many in the crowds had pleaded with the army to push Mubarak out.

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