ALEXANDRIA, Egypt – After days of violence and rising tensions, the 11th day of the uprising in Egypt was largely peaceful and cautiously celebratory, as anti-regime demonstrators continued to demand the immediate removal of President Hosni Mubarak.
Organizers called Friday “Departure Day” in hopes that heightened protests would force the longtime president to leave the country. Activists were disappointed when it became clear that Mr. Mubarak was determined not to leave Egypt or resign immediately.
Mr. Mubarak said he is ready to step down but cannot because a quick departure would cause chaos. When asked how he responded to President Obama’s call for immediate change in an interview on ABC News, Mr. Mubarak said he told Mr. Obama, “You don’t understand the Egyptian culture and what would happen if I step down now.”
Mr. Obama said he was “encouraged” by the lack of violence at Friday’s protests but was firm about the White House position on the uprising.
“There needs to be a transition process that begins now,” he said. “The details of this transition will be worked out by Egyptians.”
European leaders also stepped up pressure on the leader this week, calling for an immediate transition to democracy. British Prime Minster David Cameron was terse when he told reporters that his country would not stand for government attacks on Egyptian protesters.
“I think above all the message is this: If we see on the streets of Cairo today state sponsored violence or the hiring of thugs to beat up protesters, then Egypt and its regime would lose any remaining credibility and support in the eyes of the watching world, including Britain,” said Mr. Cameron.
Protesters were relieved the day ended in relative peace. After clashes between pro-government and anti-Mubarak protesters claimed 11 lives and injured hundreds this week, many feared this highly anticipated day would end with widespread bloodshed. Instead, at day’s end protesters appeared energized and vowed to continue demonstrating in Cairo and in Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city.
“We will stay until he leaves,” said a 16-year-old activist as her father passed out bottles of water to other protesters in Alexandria. Other activists wandered the crowd handing out chocolates, and as it started to rain, the streets remained packed with tens of thousands of people.
Under heavy security in Cairo, people danced and cheered in Tahrir Square before clashes broke out between anti- and pro-government young people on side streets. Some gunshots were heard, but largely peaceful demonstrations continued in the square into the night.
In Alexandria, the morning had been tense as locals feared the violence that has plagued Cairo in the past few days would break out at home. Almost immediately after Friday prayers ended, thousands of people outside Qaed Ibrahim, a mosque that has become a center of anti-Mubarak demonstrations, began chanting, “The election was fake” and “The people want the government out.”
Ahmed, an engineer, leaned against a car and watched the protests with his teenage son early Friday afternoon. “Everyone hates Mubarak,” he said, pointing to the crowd chanting and waving Egyptian flags. Handwritten in Arabic on many of the flags: “Get out Mubarak.”
When asked about the pro-Mubarak protesters that swept Alexandria’s many demonstration centers earlier in the week, Ahmed dismissed them, saying they were government thugs and not from his town. “They were paid,” he said, waving his hand.
In Wednesday’s clashes in Cairo, demonstrators threw rocks, sticks and homemade firebombs for hours. Activists, international leaders and the media immediately pointed the finger at the Mubarak regime, accusing the government of trying to discredit the uprising and terrify the protesters.
Wednesday also marked the beginning of a series of beatings, arrests, detentions and harassment of at least 50 foreign journalists in Egypt.
The Committee to Protect Journalists accused the Mubarak regime of staging the crackdown on foreign reporters, and nearly all of the incidents reported were blamed on authorities or pro-Mubarak demonstrators. Al Jazeera, a widely watched alternative to state-run television news in Egypt, continued to be blocked Friday and said its Cairo station was ransacked by “pro-government thugs.”
Few pro-government demonstrators attended Alexandria’s rallies today, and there was no visible presence of foreign journalists. After rumors of Israeli spies being caught in Egypt, however, locals warned all foreigners to stay off the streets.
As the uprising drags well into its second week, many Alexandrians say they don’t care who wins, they just want the turmoil to end. The Egyptian economy has stagnated, and normal life has come to a crashing halt.
Prices have soared, salaries are unpaid, most people are not going to work and there is no end in sight. Egyptian men across the country stay up all night policing their neighborhoods, carrying clubs, kitchen knives and blocks of wood. Without a security force on the streets, many Egyptians fear break-ins or violence. And on the streets at night, men say they never know what will happen next.
“Every night I go out about 5 or 6 p.m. I leave my children,” said Khaled Fouad. “I don’t know if I am going to see them again.”
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