Egypt protests swell despite govt steps on reform

* Biggest gathering yet in movement that began on January 25

* Egyptian president issues decree forming committee to oversee constitutional changes ahead of elections later this year

CAIRO: Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators flooded Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square and towns across Egypt on Tuesday as the nation’s embattled President Hosni Mubarak took a step towards democratic reform in another bid to appease opponents.

In Cairo, the immense crowd hailed as a hero a charismatic cyberactivist and Google executive whose Facebook site helped kickstart the protest movement on January 25 and who has since been detained and held blindfolded for 12 days.

AFP journalists overlooking the square confirmed it was the biggest gathering yet in a movement which began on January 25. Witnesses in Egypt’s second city Alexandria said a march there also attracted record numbers.

Earlier, the regime had issued a decree forming a committee to oversee constitutional changes ahead of elections due later this year.

“The president welcomed the national consensus, confirming we are on the right path to getting out of the current crisis,” said Vice President Omar Suleiman, whom many now see as the effective power behind the throne.

“A clear road map has been put in place with a set timetable to realise a peaceful and organised transfer of power,” he promised, in a televised address.

The vice president has begun meeting representatives of some opposition parties - including the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, but not some of the street protest groups - to draw up plans for a democratic transition.

Mubarak has vowed not to stand for re-election in September, but opposition groups say any vote to replace the 82-year-old strongman would not be fair under Egypt’s current constitution.

While larger crowds gather daily to protest, several thousand occupy Tahrir Square day and night, sleeping under plastic sheets or under army tanks.

“Patriotic songs about the country used to sound exaggerated, but we own the country now,” said 34-year-old doctor Issam Shebana, who came back from Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates to staff a makeshift clinic in the square.

On Monday, Mubarak tried to buy time, pledging to raise public sector wages by 15 percent and ordering a probe into deadly violence that has left at least 300 people dead in the course of 15 days of protests.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said it was “critical” the Egyptian government fulfil its promises and move ahead with an orderly democratic transition after days of mass street protests.

But US President Barack Obama’s spokesman Robert Gibbs added, “I am not going to be the play-by-play announcer, and nor is this administration, about what represents progress in Egypt.” afp

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