Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians massed in downtown Cairo today for what was billed as a "departure day" rally for President Hosni Mubarak.
For the 11th straight day, Egyptians of all ages and social class united by anger over poverty, oppression, and corruption have called for the resignation of their 82-year-old leader, who has ruled the country for 30 years.
There was no evidence of the violence of the last two days, when supporters of the regime launched violent attacks against antigovernment demonstrators. The clashes, which reportedly killed eight people, saw both sides hurling rocks and worse at each other, with sporadic gunfire.
Tarek El-Shamy, correspondent for U.S.-sponsored Al Hurra television, said the mood in the center of Cairo has been peaceful. "Fortunately, those attackers and looters from the authorities have retreated after the wide condemnation from the international community and the opposition in Egypt. They have not launched any more attacks since early morning today," he said.
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay today called for a "transparent and impartial" investigation by Egyptian authorities into the violent clashes earlier this week between Mubarak supporters and opponents. The UN says it believes as many as 300 people may have died in the nearly two weeks of unrest across Egypt.
Government Faces In The Crowd
Today's rally was also notable for the government officials who made appearances. At one point, Amr Moussa, who is the secretary general of the Arab League and served as foreign minister in the Mubarak government, entered the square and appeared to join the protesters.
And the spokesman for Al Azhar, Egypt's largest state-run religious authority unexpectedly announced he is resigning. Mohamed Rafah Tahtawy said he was stepping down because he was participating in the protests and had issued statements in support of "the revolutionists."
Obama Calls For Power Shift 'Now'
The current defense minister and deputy prime minister, Mohamed Tantawi, also showed up for a short time and reportedly tried to persuade protesters that their chief demand was met when Mubarak announced on January 28 that he won't run for reelection when his term expires later this year.
Meanwhile, “The New York Times,” citing U.S. and Arab officials, reported that the White House is talking to members of Mubarak’s government about a proposal that would see Mubarak resigning immediately and handing power to a transitional government led by Vice President Omar Suleiman and supported by the army.
Under the proposed scenario, army chief Sami Enan and Defense Minister Tantawi would immediately begin a process of constitutional reform. The transitional government would also meet with a wide range of opposition groups, including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, to prepare for free and fair elections in the fall.
PHOTO GALLERY -- Cairo's Tahrir Square and the "Day of Departure" rally:
Speaking at the White House, President Barack Obama said “the whole world” is watching events unfold in Egypt and is confident that the Egyptian people “can shape the future that they deserve.”
As to the whether the United States is playing a role in what happens next, Obama said, “We are consulting widely within Egypt and within the international community to communicate our strong belief that a successful and orderly transition must be meaningful. Negotiations should include a broad representation of the Egyptian opposition and this transition must address the legitimate grievances of those who seek a better future."
He also repeated his call for the transition process to begin immediately and said that in two separate phone calls to Mubarak, he has told the embattled leader that a return to the old ways “is not going to work.”
He said he has appealed to Mubarak to consider the greater good of Egypt and take steps now to push the country toward democratic reform, but stopped short of saying he should resign at once. “He is proud, but he's also a patriot," Obama said.
On February 4, Mubarak told the U.S. television network, "I am fed up. After 62 years in public service, I have had enough. I want to go." But he predicted “chaos” if he left office now.
Press Attacks Condemned
Newly appointed Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq has already indicated that he is prepared to meet with representatives of the protesters to hear their demands, saying on February 3, "Many of the protesters send many messages through some mediators describing their demands. And I will receive some of those young protesters to hold talks together. There is a sort of dialogue among us now and I hope it can be useful for achieving a compromise among the concerned sides."
Despite such calls for dialogue, there is no indication so far that the government and opposition parties can find common ground for talks.
The opposition -- which includes the liberal figurehead Mohamed ElBaradei and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood -- has rejected talks until Mubarak resigns. They also say they want democracy rather than Mubarak's replacement by another leader drawn from the army, which has dominated Egypt since it toppled the monarchy in 1952.
In recent days the regime has launched a campaign of intimidation against foreigners, including aid workers and journalists. Vice President Omar Suleiman has said protests are being fanned by "foreign" interests” and vowed an investigation into the violence, which he said might have been instigated by elements "with foreign agendas, the Muslim Brotherhood, certain parties or businessmen."
His charges of foreign interference come as many media groups reported being targeted by Egyptian police. The Committee To Protect Journalists said 24 reporters had been detained over 24 hours.
The crackdown on the press has drawn sharp criticism from Washington, and today from Obama: “We are sending a strong and unequivocal message: attacks on reporters are unacceptable. Attacks on human right activists are unacceptable. Attacks on peaceful protesters are unacceptable,” he said.
In Paris, Reporters Without Borders head Jean-Francois Julliard spoke at a protest in front of the Egyptian Embassy.
"We denounce the situation of press freedom in Egypt because every journalist, every foreign journalist or Egyptian journalist, has been physically attacked, threatened with death, some of them have been injured,” he said.
“It's totally impossible to work as a journalist in Egypt today. And we have the feeling that Egyptian authorities are going to do everything they can to shut down journalists and to muzzle press freedom in Egypt."
written by Charles Recknagel and Heather Maher, with agency material