CAIRO // Egypt's powerful military said yesterday it would not open fire on protesters as a coalition of Egyptian opposition groups called for a million people to take to Cairo's streets today.
"To the great people of Egypt, your armed forces, acknowledging the legitimate rights of the people … have not and will not use force against the Egyptian people," an army statement said.
The concerted opposition action signalled the emergence of a unified leadership for the protests demanding the removal of the president, Hosni Mubarak.
They opposition brushed aside the latest concessions offered yesterday by the president. A sea of protesters again flooded Tahrir Square yesterday as Mr Mubarak was announcing a new cabinet in which the widely disliked interior minister, Habib al Adly, and the finance and culture ministers of the previous cabinet, were axed.
The new cabinet was greeted with scorn by protesters in the square. "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.
"We will stay in the square until the coward leaves," the crowd chanted.
Troops, tanks and armoured personnel carriers made no effort to disperse the crowd even two hours after the start of the 3pm curfew, although helicopters flew overhead.
"This is all nonsense," said protester Omar el Demerdash, 24, a research executive. "The demand is clear: we want Mubarak and his men to get out. Anything other than that is just not enough," he said.
The coalition of opposition groups also called an indefinite general strike yesterday, and discussed making the reform advocate Mohamed ElBaradei their spokesman.
If Egypt's opposition groups are able to truly coalesce - far from a certainty for movements that include students, online activists, old-school opposition politicians and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood - it could sustain and amplify the momentum of the week-old protests.
Faced with untold numbers potentially trying to converge on the capital, authorities stopped all trains from running yesterday afternoon.
A march has also been called for tomorrow in Alexandria because of the cancellation of train services, according to an aide to Mr ElBaradei.
Much of Cairo is shut down with government offices and private businesses closed. Banks, schools and the stock market were shut for the second working day. Long queues 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 in Egypt and countries around the world scrambled to send in planes to fly their citizens out.
The state-owned national carrier EgyptAir said it was cancelling all domestic and international flights from 3pm to 8am until further notice, coinciding with the curfew in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. Some flight times will be changed to take the curfew into account.
Police also returned to the streets yesterday after an unexplained two-day absence that left the city prey to looters and jail-breakers, as residents formed self-defence groups to protect their neighbourhoods.
Protesters were not pleased to see the police return after clashes last week. "I'm not happy about it at all - the police are all thieves," said Mabhouh, a shopkeeper off Kasr al Ainy Street. "The army is good, they look after us."
Mr Mubarak's new line-up of cabinet ministers included stalwarts of his regime but purged several of the prominent businessmen who held economic posts and have engineered the country's economic liberalisation policies.
The most significant change was the replacement of the interior minister, Mr 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, replaces him. 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.
In the new cabinet, Mr Mubarak retained his long-serving defence minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and the foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit. The longest-serving cabinet minister, the culture minister, Farouq Hosni, was replaced by Gaber Asfour, a widely respected literary figure. Egypt's most famous archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, was named state minister for antiquities, a new post.
State newspapers also published yesterday a sternly worded letter from Mr Mubarak to his new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, ordering him to move swiftly to introduce political, legislative and constitutional reforms.
Mr ElBaradei, a pro-democracy advocate and former head of the UN nuclear watchdog, invigorated anti-Mubarak feeling with his return to Egypt last year, but the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood remains Egypt's largest opposition movement.
The Brotherhood, which wants to form an Islamist state in the Arab world's largest nation, said it would not take a leadership role in the opposition coalition. Western governments and many secular Egyptians have expressed fears about a significant Brotherhood role in Egyptian politics. "We don't want to harm this revolution," Mohamed Mahdi Akef, a former leader of the group, said yesterday.
Mr Mubarak, 82, a former air force commander in office since 1981, is known to have no tolerance for Islamists in politics, whether militants or moderates, and it remains highly unlikely that he would allow his government to engage in any dialogue with the Brotherhood.
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 Barack Obama telephoned Britain, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia at the weekend to convey his administration's desire for restraint and an orderly transition to a more responsive government.
European Union foreign ministers also urged a peaceful transition to democracy and warned against a takeover by religious militants.
Israeli officials said they had agreed to allow Egypt to move several hundred troops into the Sinai peninsula for the first time since the countries reached peace three decades ago.
Under the 1979 peace treaty, Israel returned the captured Sinai to Egypt. In return, Egypt agreed to leave the area demilitarised.
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* additional reporting from Agence-France Press, Associated Press and Reuters