Jan. 31, 2011 — -- Egypt's beleaguered regime announced today that it will hold new elections in the coming weeks, a remarkable concession by President Hosni Mubarak after a week of massive protests demanding that he step down.
The announcement was made by Mubarak's newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, who said that he has been authorized to talk to opposition parties.
Suleiman's statement came as protesters are hoping to turn out a million demonstrators on the streets Tuesday in what could be decisive showdown between Mubarak and the opposition forces.
Hundreds of Americans fled the turbulent country as Egyptians prepared for another day of protests.
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A total of nine flights carrying a mix of official and non-Embassy staff will leave Cairo by the end of today, for Cyprus, Greece and Turkey, the State Department said.
Many others remained at Cairo's airport, hoping to leave the country where protests over the last week have left scores dead and hundreds injured.
Mubarak, the embattled president of the world's largest Arab state, swore in a new cabinet today but the move merely resonated with protesters as another way for the 82-year-old president to cling to power.
The appointment of the new cabinet did little to quell the thousands of anti-government demonstrators calling for Mubarak's ouster. The new government is filled with familiar faces, including Vice President Omar Suleiman, who previously served as intelligence chief, and Ahmed Shafiq, minister of aviation and ex-leader of the Egyptian Air Force, who is the new prime minister. Mubarak also retained his long-time defense and foreign ministers.
Thousands defied a fourth day of curfew and converged in Cairo's main center, which has served as the staging ground for this uprising, chanting "we want the fall of the regime," and "Mubarak must go."
"This is not a new government. This is the same regime, this is the same bluff. He (Mubarak) has been bluffing us for 30 years... We gave him more than one chance, but he does not understand," said one angry protester.
The Obama administration maintained public place pressure on Mubarak, though officials again refused to take sides.
"We're not picking between those on the street and those in the government," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters today. "I don't think people looking for freedom are looking for someone else to pick what and how that change looks like."
A coalition of opposition groups is organizing a million-man march to take place on Tuesday, starting at 10 a.m. Opposition groups want to march from Tahrir, or Liberation Square, to the presidential palace, according to various reports, to force Mubarak to step down by Friday. They are also calling for a strike as banks, schools and the stock market remain shuttered for a second day.
Police are back out on the streets after virtually disappearing late Friday, leaving a vacuum in security that was filled by looters, vandals, and the release of prisoners from the country's jails.
Over the weekend, buildings were set on fire and clashes continued between protesters and the government.
After days of allowing protesters to gather in Liberation Square, Egyptian soldiers are deploying more tanks and columns of foot soldiers to try to keep them out. Barbed wire blocked the main road leading to the square, and the army was building a barricade across the street in front of the State TV building.
The military, however, hasn't yet made any move against demonstrators. In fact, in a sign that Mubarak may be losing the support of the country's most revered institution, the Egyptian army released a statement today saying that it will not use force against protesters and that it understands that demands by the Egyptian people are legitimate.
The military was deployed Friday at the height of this week's tension, and unlike the police, it has mostly been welcomed by the public.
Since soldiers began patrolling the streets, it often seemed unclear what their orders were in controlling the protests. Protesters were seen riding on the tanks of soldiers and some soldiers were even seen chanting along with the protesters.
Spokesmen for several of the opposition groups said their representatives were meeting today to develop a unified strategy for ousting Mubarak.
"We don't want life to go back to normal until Mubarak leaves," Israa Abdel-Fattah, a founders of the April 6 Group, a movement of young people pushing for democratic reform, told the Associated Press.
The opposition groups range from youth groups to online activists, old-school opposition politicians and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mubarak has authorized his newly appointed prime minister to open negotiations with the opposition, according to state television.
Leaders from the opposition groups will also discuss if Nobel laureate Mohammad ElBaradei should be the opposition's leader. ElBaradei, the former head of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency, spoke out against Mubarak Sunday on "This Week with Christiane Amanpour," saying only his departure will resolve the volatile situation.
"First step, he has to go. Second step, we have to have a government of national salvation, in coordination with the army... Then, we prepare for a free and fair election, a new constitution and then move on to democracy," ElBaradei said.
Meanwhile, concerned about the impact of the security situation on their country, Israeli officials told the Associated Press today that they have agreed to let Egypt move 800 troops into the Sinai peninsula for the first time since the two countries reached peace three decades ago. Under the 1979 peace treaty, Egypt regained control of the Sinai area but was not allowed to post military forces there.
U.S. Calls For 'Orderly Transition' in Egypt
Demonstrators, angry and frustrated at the country's dire economic situation, high food prices, rising unemployment and decades of corruption and poverty, are demanding an end to Mubarak's 30-year rule that they charge has been filled with corruption.
Demonstrations were sparked by calls on social media to gather and protest, after a similar uprising in Tunisia earlier this month ended the 23-year-long presidency of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Similar protests have sprouted in the neighboring countries of Yemen and Jordan, and its ripples are being as far away as Pakistan, another close U.S. ally.
Blaming the Doha, Qatar-based Al Jazeera network for fueling the uprising, authorities today temporarily detained six of the network's reporters and confiscated their equipment. The network was taken off the airwaves Sunday.
Egyptian authorities also cancelled all train services to Cairo in an obvious attempt at preventing more people from reaching the country's capital.
The situation in Egypt is particularly alarming to the United States. Egypt is one of United States' closest allies in the Middle East. It is only one of two Arab countries that recognizes Israel and has helped broker key peace deals. Mubarak's government has also been a close U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism. Egypt is also home to the Suez Canal, and any instability in the region could be gravely dangerous to U.S. interests in the region.
In the most firm language employed by U.S. administration officials so far, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Sunday called for an "orderly transition" with lasting effects and said the Egyptian government must respect the rights of people to demonstrate peacefully. However, she stopped short of pointing fingers at Mubarak.
"And by that I mean real democracy, not a democracy for six months or a year and then evolving into, essentially, a military dictatorship," Clinton told ABC News on Sunday.
The White House wants Mubarak to immediately begin a dialogue with the civil society, fully restore modes of communication like cell phone services and the internet and lift the emergency law, which has been in place since 1967 and gives the government far-reaching powers at the expense of judicial review and civil liberties.
The United States also faces the challenge of addressing angry and disappointed Egyptian residents, who say that for all the calls of democracy, the U.S. has done little to promote it in the region.
The U.S. "must tell him (Mubarak) frankly to go," said Ayman, an Egyptian journalist. "Go at once. The United States should choose between the Egyptian people and Mubarak. Mubarak will leave, today or tomorrow. But the Egyptian people will stay forever. They must be with us, frankly."
Amid the escalating violence, a number of countries, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iraq, have sent charter planes and private jets to pull their citizens out of the country.
The United States evacuated about more than 1,200 Americans from Egypt today on various flights to Cyprus, Athens, and Istanbul. They plan to move another 1,000 on Tuesday. There are 50,000 Americans throughout Egypt.
The State Department has so far received requests to help evacuate 2,600 Americans, majority of whom are in Cairo. But requests have also come from other cities including Alexandria, Luxor, and Aswan.
There will be at least six more flights on Tuesday, expected to evacuate another 1,000 Americans. There may also be flights from Aswan and Luxor in the next day or two, State Department officials said.
Americans trying to make it to the airport in Cairo faced several roadblocks set up by armed civilians protecting their homes and other blocks set up by the army. Others camped out in airport terminals hoping to jump on the next flight out of the country.
"We've talked about hiring drivers we know, buying us food and just to drive it out to us," one American told ABC News.
In the United States, anxious parents of students studying in Egypt waited for word from their children.
"I just want to make sure you're okay and if you need me, you know where I am. Just call and we'll get you home all right," Phyllis Cologgi said in a message to her daughter who is studying in Egypt.
An American student waiting at the airport estimated that the vast majority of American students have opted to leave, abandoning their belongings in their apartments, and have been catching chartered buses to the airport with only the clothes on their backs and their passports.
Egyptians Form Civilian Patrols to Fight Looters
As security broke down over the weekend in the absence of police, vandals and looters raided government buildings and even stormed the famed Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo, shattering display cases and smashing precious artifacts. The museum is home to more than 120,000 items, including King Tut's golden mask and solid gold coffin. Looters destroyed two mummies a 3,000-year-old wooden statue from the time of King Tut was shattered.
Soldiers have detained about 50 men who tried to break into the museum, and the military continues to fire gunshots into the air to scare off looters.
Vigilante groups were formed in neighborhoods to protect looters from robbing houses.
Though the turmoil in Egypt comes on the heels of the uprising in another north African country, Tunisia, discontent against Mubarak's regime had been simmering for a long time.
A Pew Global Report published in June found that 69 percent of Egyptians were dissatisfied with the way things were progressing in their country, compared to 28 percent who expressed satisfaction. A whopping 80 percent of those surveyed thought their economy was in bad shape, compared to 46 percent just a few years ago in 2007. Of those who said the economy was bad, just a quarter expected improvement in the next year.
Meanwhile, U.S. favorability in the country has declined rapidly, from 30 percent in 2006 to 17 percent in 2010, the lowest percentage observed in any of the Pew Global Attitudes surveys conducted in that country since 2006.
ABC News' Nasser Atta, Gary Langer and Kirit Radia contributed to this report.