Opposition groups unite against Mubarak

A coalition of opposition groups have called for a million people to take to Cairo’s streets tomorrow to demand the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, the clearest sign yet that a unified leadership was trying to emerge for Egypt’s protest movement.

In an apparent attempt to defuse the political upheaval, Mr Mubarak today named a new government – dropping the widely hated interior minister in charge of security forces.

But the new cabinet line-up was greeted with scorn in Tahrir Square, the central Cairo plaza that has become the protesters’ epicentre, with crowds of more than 10,000 chanting for Mr Mubarak’s removal.

“We don’t want life to go back to normal until Mubarak leaves,” said Israa Abdel-Fattah, a founder of the April 6 Group of young people pushing for democratic reform.

In what appeared to be a reaction to the opposition call, state TV aired a warning from the military against “the carrying out of any act that destabilises security of the country”.

If Egypt’s opposition groups are able to truly unite, it could sustain and amplify the momentum of the week-old protests. A unified front could also provide a focal point for world leaders who are issuing demands for an orderly transition to a democratic system, saying Mr Mubarak’s limited concessions are insufficient.

But unity is far from certain among the array of movements involved in the protests, with often conflicting agendas – including students, online activists, grassroots organisers, old-school opposition politicians and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, along with everyday citizens.

A gathering of around 30 representatives from some of the protest groups today saw them agree to work as a united coalition, and supported a call for one million people to turn out for a march tomorrow, said spokesman Abu’l-Ela Madi. But they disagreed on other key points.

The representatives decided to meet again tomorrow morning at the HQ of Wafd, the oldest legal opposition party, to finalise and announce a list of demands.

They will also decide whether to make prominent reform advocate Mohamed ElBaradei spokesman for the protesters, Mr Madi said.

Then, he said, they will march to Tahrir Square to demand the removal of Mr Mubarak, 82, whom they blame for widespread poverty, inflation and official indifference and brutality during his 30 years in power.

The coalition also called for a general strike today, although much of Cairo remained shut down anyway with government officers and private businesses closed.

The mood in Tahrir – or Liberation – Square, surrounded by army tanks and barbed wire, today was celebratory and determined as more protesters filtered in.

Some played music, others distributed food to their colleagues. Young men climbed lampposts to hang Egyptian flags and signs proclaiming “Leave, Mubarak!”.

A speakers’ corner formed on one side where people had the chance to grab a microphone and make their voices heard.

Egypt today endured another day of the virtual halt to normal life that the crisis has caused. Trains stopped running – raising the prospect that the government was trying to prevent residents of the provinces from joining protests in the capital.

Banks, schools and the stock market in Cairo were closed for the second working day. An unprecedented complete shutdown of the internet was in its fourth day.

But a wave of looting, armed robbery and arson that erupted on Friday night and Saturday – after police disappeared from the streets – appeared to ease as police reappeared in many districts.

Neighbourhood watch groups armed with clubs and machetes kept the peace in many districts overnight.

One watch group fended off a band of robbers who tried to break in and steal antiquities from the warehouse of the famed Karnak Temple on the east bank of the Nile in the ancient southern city of Luxor.

The locals clashed with the attackers who arrived at the temple carrying guns and knives in two cars and seized five of them, handing them over to the military.

In Cairo, soldiers detained about 50 men trying to break into the Egyptian National Museum in a fresh attempt to loot some of the country’s archaeological treasures, the military said.

The official death toll from the crisis now stands at 97, with thousands injured, but reports from witnesses across the country indicated the actual toll was far higher.

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