CAIRO — Egypt's military promised Monday not to fire on any peaceful protests and said it recognized "the legitimacy of the people's demands" ahead of a demonstration in which organizers aim to bring a million Egyptians to the streets to press for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
The military statement was the strongest sign yet that the army was willing to let the week-old protests continue and even grow as long as they remain peaceful, even if that leads to the fall of Mubarak. If the 82-year-old president, a former air force commander, loses the support of the military, it would likely be a fatal blow to his rule.
Attempt to quell protests flops
The announcement came after the latest gesture by Mubarak aimed at defusing the upheaval fell flat. Protesters in the street and his top ally, the United States, roundly rejected his announcement of a new government Monday that dropped his interior minister, who heads police forces and was widely denounced by the protesters.
Another concession came later Monday night, when Vice President Omar Suleiman — who was appointed by Mubarak only two days earlier — went on state TV to announce that the president had tasked him to immediately begin dialogue with "political forces" for constititional and legislative reforms.
Suleiman, a longtime Mubarak confidant, did not say what the changes would entail or which groups the government would speak with. Opposition forces have long demanded a lifting of strict restrictions on who is eligible to run for president to allow a real challenge to the ruling party, as well as measures to ensure elections are fair. A presidential election is scheduled for September.
White House calls for action
In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs dismissed the naming of the new government, saying the situation in Egypt calls for action, not appointments.
The new lineup was greeted with scorn in Tahrir Square, the central Cairo plaza that has become the protests' epicenter, with crowds of more than 10,000 on Monday chanting for Mubarak's ouster.
"We don't want life to go back to normal until Mubarak leaves," said Israa Abdel-Fattah, a founder of the April 6 Group, a movement of young people pushing for democratic reform.
The mood in Tahrir — or Liberation — Square, surrounded by army tanks and barbed wire, was celebratory and determined as more protesters filtered in to join what has turned into a continual encampment despite a curfew, moved up an hour to 3 p.m. on its fourth day in effect. Some protesters played music, others distributed dates and other food to their colleagues or watched the latest news on TVs set up on sidewalks.
Young men climbed lampposts to hang Egyptian flags and signs proclaiming "Leave, Mubarak!" One poster featured Mubarak's face plastered with a Hitler mustache, a sign of the deep resentment toward a leader they blame for widespread poverty, inflation and official indifference and brutality during his 30 years in power.
A coalition of protest groups called for a million people to join protests Tuesday — and many protesters spoke of marching out of Tahrir Square to move toward one of the several presidential palaces around Cairo. That would be a significant step: For days, the military has allowed the crowds to gather freely, but only within the confines of Tahrir.
The military's statement suggested the army may allow the protesters to march out of the square as long as they don't engage in violence.
"Your armed forces, realizing the legitimacy of the people's demands and out of concern to carry out its responsibility to protect the nation and citizens, states the following," the spokesman, Ismail Etman said in the introduction of the statement. He said the military "has not and will not use force against the public" and underlined that the "the freedom of peaceful expression is guaranteed for everyone."
He added the caveats, however, that protesters should not commit "any act that destabilizes security of the country" or damage property.
Looting that erupted over the weekend across the city of around 18 million eased — but Egyptians endured another day of the virtual halt to normal life that the crisis has caused, raising fears of damage to Egypt's economy if the crisis drags on. Trains stopped running Monday, possibly an attempt by authorities 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, making cash tight. An unprecedented complete shutdown of the Internet was in its fourth day. Long lines formed outside bakeries as people tried to replenish their stores of bread.
Cairo's international airport was a scene of chaos and confusion as thousands of foreigners sought to flee the unrest, and countries around the world scrambled to send in planes to fly their citizens out.
The official death toll from the crisis stood at 97, with thousands injured, but reports from witnesses across the country indicated the actual toll was far higher.
The White House said President Barack Obama called Britain, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia over the weekend in the U.S. to convey his administration's desire for restraint and an orderly transition to a more responsive government.
European Union foreign ministers urged a peaceful transition to democracy and warned against a takeover by religious militants.
Mubarak appeared fatigued as he was shown on state TV swearing in the members of his new Cabinet. The most significant change in the shakeup was the replacement of the interior minister, Habib el-Adly, who heads internal security forces and is widely despised by protesters for the brutality some officers have shown. A retired police general, Mahmoud Wagdi, will replace him.
Of the 29-member Cabinet, 14 were new faces, most of them not members of the ruling National Democratic Party. Among those purged were several of the prominent businessmen who held economic posts and have engineered the country's economic liberalization policies the past decades. Many Egyptians resented the influence of millionaire politician-moguls, who were close allies of the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, long thought to be the heir apparent.
Mubarak retained his long-serving defense minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
State newspapers on Monday published a sternly worded letter from Mubarak to his new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, ordering him to move swiftly to introduce political, legislative and constitutional reforms and pursue economic policies that will improve people's lives.
But as news of the new government was heard in Tahrir Square, many of the protesters renewed chants of "We want the fall of this regime."
Mostafa el-Naggar, a member of the ElBaradei-backing Association for Change, said he recognized no decision Mubarak took after Jan. 25, the first day of Egyptian protests emboldened by Tunisians' expulsion of their longtime president earlier in the month.
"This is a failed attempt," said el-Naggar of the new government. "He is done with."
If Egypt's opposition groups are able to truly coalesce, it could sustain and amplify the momentum of the week-old protests.
But unity is far from certain among the array of movements involved in the protests, with sometimes conflicting agendas — including students, online activists, grassroots organizers, old-school opposition politicians and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, along with everyday citizens drawn by the exhilaration of marching against the government.