Egyptians gather to protest against possible Iraq war

Rally's official sanction seems government effort to modulate public anger

February 28, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CAIRO, Egypt - Tens of thousands of Egyptians gathered yesterday in this city's main stadium for the largest protest here against an American-led war in Iraq. It was also the largest antiwar demonstration in the Arab world outside of Iraq.

Egyptian authorities, who in recent weeks have arrested dozens of demonstrators and forcibly restricted several smaller protests against the war and against Israel, sanctioned yesterday's rally in what appeared to be an effort by President Hosni Mubarak's government to carefully modulate public anger over the prospect of a new conflict in the region.

"By our soul, by our blood, we will redeem you, Baghdad!" protesters chanted in undulating unison as speaker after speaker denounced the Bush administration's threat to overthrow President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

The chant's coda changed to "Palestine!" and back again, underscoring that many view the Iraqi crisis as inextricably linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Our gathering is a message to Arab leaders and America," Khaled Mohieddin, leader of the leftist opposition party Tagamua, told the crowd. "The message is that Iraq and Palestine are questions of prime importance for us; they are more important than internal questions."

Yesterday's rally, at Cairo International Stadium in Nasser City, a suburban neighborhood, was organized by labor unions, opposition parties and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic political and social organization that is officially banned here.

Egypt's emergency laws - in effect since 1967 with a brief interruption - bar public demonstrations, making yesterday's one of the largest tolerated in Egypt in years.

With public sentiment strongly opposed to a war, Mubarak's National Democratic Party announced that next week it, too, would organize an antiwar march.

"I think the government felt it had to do something to allow the people to speak," Mamoun al-Hudaibi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said amid the rally's rhythmic din. "The government has respected the will of the people."

The stadium, with a capacity of more than 80,000, was overflowing.

By some estimates, the crowd totaled more than 100,000, and the protest's organizers said police turned away thousands more, noting safety concerns.

The rally was held as senior Arab leaders began to gather for the Arab League's annual summit meeting, which is to be held tomorrow in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Several speakers at yesterday's rally called on Arab leaders to oppose any war.

The league's 22 members have been deeply divided, with some providing bases for the U.S. and British forces poised to strike Iraq.

Mubarak has repeatedly called on Hussein to cooperate with weapons inspections, saying that only that could avert a war.

At the same time, the official news media appear to be bracing the public for war's inevitability.

One official government newspaper, Al-Mussawar, called this week for Hussein to step down.

"The gates of hell," it said, "will not be closed without Saddam's exodus."

Many protesters were angered by the Bush administration's threat to depose Hussein. Thousands waved banners and posters denouncing the United States and President Bush.

"America, are you OK?" one said. "Bush will fill your tanks with the blood of Iraq's children."

The rally was raucous but peaceful.

When two protesters ran onto the stadium's field and tried to burn an American flag, security guards stopped them.

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