CAIRO – More than a quarter-million people flooded Cairo's main square Tuesday in a stunning and jubilant array of young and old, urban poor and middle class professionals, mounting by far the largest protest yet in a week of unrelenting demands for President Hosni Mubarak to leave after nearly 30 years in power.
The crowds — determined but peaceful — filled Tahrir, or Liberation, Square and spilled into nearby streets, among them people defying a government transportation shutdown to make their way from rural provinces in the Nile Delta. Protesters jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, with schoolteachers, farmers, unemployed university graduates, women in conservative headscarves and women in high heels, men in suits and working-class men in scuffed shoes.
They sang nationalist songs, danced, beat drums and chanted the anti-Mubarak slogan "Leave! Leave! Leave!" as military helicopters buzzed overhead. Organizers said the aim was to intensify marches to get the president out of power by Friday, and similar demonstrations erupted in at least five other cities around Egypt.
Soldiers at checkpoints set up the entrances of the square did nothing to stop the crowds from entering.
The military promised on state TV Monday night that it would not fire on protesters answering a call for a million to demonstrate, a sign that army support for Mubarak may be unraveling as momentum builds for an extraordinary eruption of discontent and demands for democracy in the United States' most important Arab ally.
"This is the end for him. It's time," said Musab Galal, a 23-year-old unemployed university graduate who came by minibus with his friends from the Nile Delta city of Menoufiya.
The movement to drive Mubarak out has been built on the work of on-line activists and fueled by deep frustration with an autocratic regime blamed for ignoring the needs of the poor and allowing corruption and official abuse to run rampant. After years of tight state control, protesters emboldened by the Tunisia unrest took to the streets on Jan. 25 and mounted a once-unimaginable series of protests across this nation of 80 million people — the region's most populous country and the center of Arabic-language film-making, music and literature.
The repercussions were being felt around the region, as other authoritarian governments fearing popular discontent pre-emptively tried to burnish their democratic image.
Jordan's King Abdullah II fired his government Tuesday in the face of smaller street protests, named an ex-prime minister to form a new Cabinet and ordered him to launch political reforms. The Palestinian Cabinet in West Bank said it would hold long-promised municipal elections "as soon as possible."
With Mubarak's hold on power in Egypt weakening, the world was forced to plan for the end of a regime that has maintained three decades of peace with Israel and a bulwark against Islamic militants. But under the stability was a barely hidden crumbling of society, mounting criticism of the regime's human rights record and a widening gap between rich and poor, with 40 percent of the population living under or just above the poverty line set by the World Bank at $2 a day.
Troops and Soviet-era and newer U.S.-made Abrams tanks stood at the roads leading into Tahrir Square, a plaza overlooked by the headquarters of the Arab League, the campus of the American University in Cairo, the famed Egyptian Museum and the Mugammma, an enormous winged building housing dozens of departments of the country's notoriously corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy.
Protester volunteers wearing tags reading "the People's Security" circulated through the crowds, saying they were watching for government infiltrators who might try to instigate violence.
"We will throw out anyone who tries to create trouble," one announced over a loudspeaker. Other volunteers joined the soldiers at the checkpoints, searching bags of those entering for weapons. Organizers said the protest would remain in the square and not attempt to march to avoid frictions with the military.
Two dummies representing Mubarak were hung from traffic lights. On their chests was written: "We want to put the murderous president on trial." Their faces were scrawled with the Star of David, an allusion to many protesters' feeling that Mubarak is a friend of Israel, still seen by most Egyptians as their country's archenemy more than 30 years after the two nations signed a peace treaty.
Every protester had their own story of why they came — with a shared theme of frustration with a life pinned in by corruption, low wages, crushed opportunities and abuse by authorities.
Sahar Ahmad, a 41-year-old school teacher and mother of one, said she has taught for 22 years and still only makes about $70 a month.
"There are 120 students in my classroom. That's more than any teacher can handle," said Ahmad. "For me, change would mean a better education system I can teach in and one that guarantees my students a good life after school. If there is democracy in my country, then I can ask for democracy in my own home."
Tamer Adly, a driver of one of the thousands of minibuses that ferry commuters around Cairo, said he was sick of the daily humiliation he felt from police who demand free rides and send him on petty errands, reflecting the widespread public anger at police high-handedness.
"They would force me to share my breakfast with them ... force me to go fetch them a newspaper. This country should not just be about one person," the 30-year-old lamented, referring to Mubarak.
Among the older protesters there was also a sense of amazement after three decades of unquestioned control by Mubarak's security forces over the streets.
"We could never say no to Mubarak when we were young, but our young people today proved that they can say no, and I'm here to support them," said Yusra Mahmoud, a 46-year-old school principal who said she had been sleeping in the square alongside other protesters for the past two nights.
Authorities shut down all roads and public transportation to Cairo, security officials said. Train services nationwide were suspended for a second day and all bus services between cities were halted.
All roads in and out of the flashpoint cities of Alexandria, Suez, Mansoura and Fayoum were also closed.
Still, many from the provinces managed to make it to the square. Hamada Massoud, a 32-year-old a lawyer, said he and 50 others came in cars and minibuses from the impoverished province of Beni Sweif south of Cairo.
"Cairo today is all of Egypt," he said. He told of the bribes he must pay to authorities to keep his office open, adding, "I want my son to have a better life and not suffer as much as I did ... I want to feel like I chose my president."
Tens of thousands also rallied in the cities of Alexandria, Suez and Mansoura, north of Cairo, as well as in the southern province of Assiut and Luxor, the southern city where some 5,000 people protested outside its iconic ancient Egyptian temple on the east bank of the Nile, officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Normally bustling, Cairo's streets outside Tahrir Square had a fraction of their normal weekday traffic.
Banks, schools and the stock market in Cairo were closed for the third working day, making cash tight. Long lines formed outside bakeries as people tried to replenish their stores of bread, for which prices were spiraling.
An unprecedented shutdown of the Internet was in its fifth day after the last of the service providers abruptly stopped shuttling Internet traffic into and out of the country.
Cairo's international airport remained a scene of chaos as thousands of foreigners sought to flee.
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 protesters — and the Obama administration — roundly rejected Mubarak's appointment of a new government Monday afternoon that dropped his interior minister, who heads police forces and has been widely denounced by the protesters. Mubarak was shown making the appointment on state television but made no comment.
Later Monday, Vice President Omar Suleiman — appointed by Mubarak only two days earlier in what could be a succession plan — went on state TV to announce the offer of a dialogue with "political forces" for constitutional and legislative reforms.
Suleiman did not say what the changes would entail or which groups the government would speak with, but most protest groups quickly announced their rejection of any negotiations until Mubarak steps down.
The various protesters have little in common beyond the demand that Mubarak go.
A range of movements is involved, with sometimes conflicting agendas — including students, online activists, grass-roots organizers, old-school opposition politicians and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.
Perhaps the most significant tensions among them are between young secular activists and the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to form a state governed by Islamic law. The more secular are deeply suspicious the Brotherhood aims to co-opt what they contend is a spontaneous, popular movement. American officials have suggested they have similar fears.
A second day of talks among opposition groups fell apart after many of the youth groups boycotted the meeting over charges that some of the traditional, government-condoned opposition parties have agreed to start a dialogue with Suleiman.
Nasser Abdel-Hamid, who represents pro-democracy advocate Mohamed ElBaradei, said: "We were supposed to hold talks today to finalize formation of a salvation front, but we decided to hold back after they are arranging meetings with Sulieman."
The U.S. State Department said that a retired senior diplomat — former ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner — was now on the ground in Cairo and will meet Egyptian officials to urge them to embrace broad economic and political changes that can pave the way for free and fair elections.
AP correspondents Maggie Michael, Maggie Hyde and Lee Keath contributed to this report.