CAIRO: Egyptian protesters massed Friday for sweeping "departure day" demonstrations to force President Hosni Mubarak to quit after he said he would like to step down but fears chaos would result
In his first television interview since 11 straight days of protest erupted shaking the pillars of his three-decade rule, Mubarak pointed the finger at the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.
And Egypt's regional rival Iran weighed in, calling on troops to join the protesters in establishing an Islamic republic.
The Islamist tag was vigorously rejected among the protesters — many of them middle class and secular — who have turned Cairo's central Tahrir Square into the epicenter of opposition to Mubarak's regime.
"They say we're the (Muslim) Brotherhood, but we're not the Brothers, we're the people," said Hathim, a 29-year-old engineer.
He was among tens of thousands of protesters who had flooded into the square joining the thousands who had bunkered down for the night.
After the bloody clashes of recent days between the demonstrators and stone-throwing Mubarak loyalists, protest stewards and troops carried out identity checks at entrances to the square to prevent it being infiltrated by provocateurs.
The troops, from the parachute regiment, were wearing helmets and full riot gear, the stewards hard hats.
Demonstrators complained that the soldiers were keeping a tight grip on numbers, allowing just 10 people at a time through their perimeter checkpoint.
Two queues of people waiting to get in stretched all the way across the Qasr El-Nil bridge to the Nile island of Zamalek, a distance of more than 500 meters, an AFP journalist said.
The authorities have been appealing to demonstrators to give up their protest in the light of Mubarak's pledge earlier this week not to seek re-election in September.
But opposition groups from across the political spectrum have dismissed the concession as completely inadequate and rejected calls by Vice President Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's veteran intelligence chief, to enter talks until the president steps down.
Washington has been pushing proposals for Suleiman to take over at the head of a transitional government, which would immediately begin a process of constitutional reform aimed at paving the way for free and fair elections in September, the New York Times reported.
"Senior administration officials said that the proposal was one of several options under discussion with high-level Egyptian officials around Mr. Mubarak in an effort to persuade the president to step down now," the paper said.
"They cautioned that the outcome depended on several factors, not least Egypt’s own constitutional protocols and the mood of the protesters on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities," it added.
Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi — regarded by Washington as a key plank of any post-Mubarak administration — himself visited Tahrir Square on Friday to appeal to demonstrators to give up their protest.
"The man (Mubarak) told you he won't stand again," Tantawi told the protesters flanked by troops, who urged the crowd to be seated.
He renewed calls for the Brotherhood to join a dialogue with the regime.
"Tell the guide to go sit down with them," he said, referring to the group's supreme guide Mohammed Badie.
Badie told Al-Jazeera television that the Brotherhood stood ready to enter talks, but only after Mubarak had gone.
"We stand with all the political forces supporting dialogue with whoever wants to implement reforms in the country after the departure of this unjust, corrupt tyrant," he told the Qatar-based satellite channel.
"We have a single demand. Once it is met, we will engage in dialogue."
For the protesters in the square, any talk of reform was meaningless as long as Mubarak remained in power.
"Serious constitutional amendments cannot take place while he's around as a president," said Khalid Abdalla, a producer and actor, as he helped clear up the rubbish left by protesters.
He voiced the fears of many demonstrators that giving up now would enable the regime to regroup and exact a terrible price on the protest movement.
"If we end this, the revenge will be scary," Abdalla said
Washington has been increasingly strident in its criticism of the violence against the protesters which has left a least eight people dead and more than 800 hurt in the past few days, saying it has evidence that it has been orchestrated.
Mubarak supporters also targeted foreign journalists, holding three reporters from France's biggest private television broadcaster TF1 blindfolded for 15 hours, their employer said.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said US officials had traced the violence to "elements close to the government and the ruling party" even if it is not clear how far "up the chain" it goes.
In an interview with US network ABC, Suleiman denied that pro-government elements had been responsible for deaths among the protesters, insisting: "They behaved very well."
Asked about shooting into the crowds, Suleiman replied, in English: "No. Nobody being killed by rifles or by snipers. No way."
In his first interview since the protests erupted, Mubarak pointed the finger at the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been outlawed in Egypt for half a century," ABC television's Christiane Amanpour reported.
The veteran leader was "fed up with being president and would like to leave office now, but cannot, he says, for fear that the country would sink into chaos," Amanpour said.
"He told me that he is troubled by the violence we have seen in Tahrir Square over the last few days but that his government is not responsible for it. Instead, he blamed the Muslim Brotherhood."
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hit out at the embattled US ally, calling Mubarak a "servant" of Israel and urging the Egyptian people to rise up and establish an Islamic republic.
"Do not back down until the implementation of a popular regime based on religion," Khamenei said in his sermon at the main weekly Muslim prayers in Tehran, switching from Persian to Arabic for the benefit of his Egyptian target audience.
"Inshallah (God willing) part of the Egyptian army will join the people," he said, adding that the "main enemy of the Egyptian army is the Zionist regime and not the people."