egypt - AFP - January 31 2011
Egyptian soldiers addressing protesters as they gather around an army tank stationed at Tahrir Square in Cairo yesterday, the sixth day of anti-government demonstrations. Photo by AFP
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AFP
Egyptian dissident Mohamed ElBaradei, center, at a rally in Cairo’s Tahrir Square yesterday. Photo by AFP

CAIRO - The weekend announcement by embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that he was appointing a vice president for the first time didn't seem to make an impression on the thousands flooding Tahrir Square and other parts of the capital. Demonstrators in Egyptian cities yesterday continued their protest against Mubarak's 30-year rule.

They didn't even bother to divert some of their condemnation to the vice president named Saturday in an effort to regain control of the country - Mubarak's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman.

"Suleiman is basically a continuation of the same policy that has already lost out," Salah Bassiuni, a 59-year-old construction supervisor, said yesterday, on his way to the square.

"He and all the other ministers appointed are the same people who always supported Mubarak and his system. Suleiman is still a general, and even though we love the army, right now we need a civil defense that will be appointed as a result of free elections."

Mohammed Salah, 26, said Suleiman's appointment doesn't change what's going on behind the scenes.

"Mubarak is still the brains," said Salah, an accountant. "He tells Suleiman what to do. And there's nothing new or different in his appointment."

The rallies didn't feature the burning of Israeli flags, and protesters didn't mention Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. All the same, many Egyptians see Suleiman as closely involved in maintaining the relationship between the Egyptian and Israeli governments.

"Mubarak and Suleiman - they're both Israel's clients," said one protester. Demonstrators have occasionally shouted for Mubarak to "go to Israel," a variant on the more usual calls to "go to Saudi Arabia," as did Tunisia's ousted president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The foreign country that sustained the most criticism was the United States, for its support of Mubarak and the mixed messages of the Obama administration.

On a large sign near Tahrir Square that was put up to promote an American company's development project, a scrawled message in large letters called on the United States to keep playing games with dictators while Egyptians achieve democracy through will alone.

In conversation, several protesters linked American support of the regime to Israel, or were critical of Israel for other reasons.

"The United States wants to weaken all the Arab countries," said Razi al-Hilal, a secretary at a computer company. "They want there to be dictators in all the Arab countries because it helps Israel. We mustn't continue to serve the Israeli and American interests."

One elderly man wandered around the square with rubber bullet casings on his fingers that clearly said "Italy." Displaying several small, round holes on his body, he said: "They fired at me seven times. The ammunition is made in Israel."

And on Friday, a small group of Muslim Brotherhood activists tried to demonstrate near the Israeli Embassy, on a side street near Cairo University. But they were blocked by security forces, and the area around the embassy continued to be a closed and secure compound.

But Egyptian residents as a whole aren't necessarily interested in reneging on Egyptian-Israeli peace, though they do want to see the Palestinians treated justly.

"We don't want to abolish diplomatic relations with Israel," said Hilal. "The wars with Israel were bad and we mustn't go back to that. But in the meantime, we must support the Palestinians more and not sell natural gas to Israel."

Gates of learning locked tight

Suleiman is not seen just as a link between Egypt and Israel, but also as the official who spent years directing the cruel repression of Egypt's largest and most organized opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.

His appointment is a clear sign to the Islamist opposition that it will not be tolerated by the Mubarak government, however long it lasts.

The plaza in front of the Al-Azhar Mosque, the oldest mosque in Cairo, was empty yesterday. The Islamic university next to it, also called Al-Azhar, shut down because of the riots. Tests scheduled for this week have been postponed to an unspecified date, and the university's gates are chained and locked.

The mosque itself was open yesterday, and those present were happy to receive a small group of tourists. But as soon as political questions arose, Abdul Mohammed, one of the mosque's administrators, just smiled - and continued to describe the Islamic architecture in the building's five turrets. The mosque's leading sheikhs are holed up in their homes, leaving just a single imam to lead prayers. He watched the TV coverage of the protests but vehemently refused to answer any questions about it.

"In this area people aren't protesting," said Mohammed Fathi, a lawyer who lives near the mosque. "In this area they know all about the repression of the security forces, and they aren't taking any risks as long as Mubarak is in power."

Muslim Brotherhood members believe that if they play a prominent role in the protests, they could end up strengthening claims that they seek to take over the country.

One supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood said Islamists have been unfairly vilified as a way of keeping Mubarak in power.

"In Egypt, Islam isn't like it is for Al-Qaida or the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia," said Nadir Zalat, a 30-year-old computer engineer. "We believe in Islam through democracy, and everything they say about us is just fear-mongering to perpetuate the regime of Mubarak and his gang."

Some said it was too early to talk about what will happen if Mubarak is indeed ousted.

"How can we even talk about an opposition in Egypt?" asked Mustafa Mabruk, a 25-year-old civil engineer. "Until yesterday, we couldn't even think for ourselves, and we certainly couldn't express ourselves. Today we woke up from a great darkness and we suddenly realized that the nation is being ruled. After it becomes clear to everyone, including Mubarak, we'll be able to start thinking about parties and politics. At the moment, this is a revolution of all Egyptians, not of any specific group."