Crowds gather as Egypt braces for 'march of millions'


Egypt braces for 'march of millions' as Mubarak cuts communications -

-- As soldiers stood guard and helicopters hovered overhead, a growing crowd gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square Tuesday morning for a planned "march of millions" to demand President Hosni Mubarak's resignation.

Egypt's government posted troops at key locations and cut internet service as activists pledged to hold major demonstrations in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities Tuesday -- a week after rallies began calling for an end to Mubarak's nearly 30-year rule.

In Cairo, protesters set up their own checkpoints to keep weapons out of Tahrir Square.

Inside, the atmosphere was peaceful Tuesday morning.

People brought food and beverages to share. Families stood together, with parents saying they came for their children. One group chanted "Down with Mubarak," while others listened to patriotic music.

Soldiers at a security checkpoint outside the square said demonstrators supporting Mubarak were also in the area, which has been a focal point of anti-government protests.

"No to the traitors," chanted a pro-Mubarak group as it headed toward the rally site.

Mubarak has given no indication that he plans to give up power, and the interior ministry said Monday that it planned to shut down mobile phone networks in preparation for Tuesday's protests. As of 11 a.m. (4 a.m. ET), some cell phone service in the country was still up and running.

Banks and schools were also closed, and a curfew aimed to keep people off the streets after 3 p.m.

But protesters have defied previous curfew orders.

It will be "a very dramatic and perhaps even a decisive day," said Nicholas Burns, a professor of diplomacy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former U.S. undersecretary of state.

"If the military cracks down on peaceful demonstrators on the streets of Alexandria or Cairo, that will be a decisive factor," he said.

The military said Monday evening that it would not open fire on peaceful protesters.

Late Monday night, Google announced a new technology option that could help Egyptians get around restrictions on mobile phone and internet service.

The new "speak-to-tweet" service allows people without an internet connection to leave a voice-mail message, which will automatically be turned into a tweet, according to a description on Google's blog.

The political turmoil has paralyzed commerce and disrupted daily life in Egypt.

State television reported Monday that the crisis has cost the country an estimated 69 billion Egyptian pounds (nearly $12 billion) and set its economy back six months.

ATM screens went dark. Gas stations ran out of fuel. Long lines snaked around bakeries and supermarkets as shops began to ration how much food customers could buy.

Men with makeshift weapons guarded neighborhoods, creating checkpoints to fill the void left when police stopped patrolling the streets.

At demonstrations last Friday, thousands of riot and plainclothes police clashed violently with protesters in a brutal crackdown.

Since then, troops from the country's powerful military have had a strong presence in the streets as largely peaceful protests continued.

"The presence of the armed forces in the Egyptian streets is for your benefit to protect your safety and peace," an unnamed spokesman announced on state television Monday night. "Your armed forces will not use violence against this great people, who have always played a significant role in every moment of Egypt's great history."

Troops have been mingling with demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square, a focal point for anti-government protests.

"There is no aggressive behavior from the army toward the peaceful assemblies," human rights activist Ramy Raoof said early Tuesday. "We hope that within a few hours, the same also will happen. We hope the army will not escalate violence against us."

Mubarak imposed an emergency decree after the 1981 assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat. A wave of protests against his regime erupted following the uprising in Tunisia that ousted its longtime strongman January 14.

While it's difficult to ascertain a solid death toll during the unrest, Human Rights Watch staffers have confirmed 80 deaths from two hospitals in Cairo, 36 deaths in Alexandria and 13 fatalities in Suez, said Human Rights Watch researcher Heba Morayef.

While it was widely believed Mubarak was grooming his son, Gamal, as his successor, that plan now has been complicated by demands for democracy.

Mubarak fired his Cabinet on Saturday and his designated longtime intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as vice president -- the first time he has filled that post since he came to power in 1981.

Suleiman announced Monday that he had begun discussing reform with opposition parties. Speaking on the state television network, Suleiman said a reform package should be drawn up "expeditiously." "The other parties will also have a role to play, which will lead to real political reform," Suleiman said.

But there were no details of what proposals might be on the table, nor was there any immediate reaction from opposition figures or any indication of which parties were taking part.

Several opposition movements have been represented on the streets in the demonstrations.

Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, secretary-general of the Wafd Party, told CNN the group's followers have been "extremely active."

Raoof, the human rights activist, said that many people with different perspectives were banding together around a common goal.

"There is no political group leading the people. There is no one leading the people. People are going in a very organic way ... people are just doing it," he said.

But others said they were opposed to the protests.

"I am upset with the revolution in Tahrir Square," said Muna al-Mahdi, her voice trembling with emotion as she spoke in her middle-class Cairo neighborhood. "It doesn't represent us. It doesn't represent our opinion. We are here sticking with Hosni Mubarak only.

"Give him two months, give him time to work," she says. "And then he can go peacefully."