More than 250,000 people have flooded into the heart of Cairo, filling the city’s main square in by far the largest demonstration in a week of unceasing demands for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to quit.
Protesters streamed into Tahrir Square, among them people defying a government transport shutdown to make their way from rural provinces in the Nile Delta.
The peaceful crowd was jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder – 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 and aimed their chant “Leave, leave, leave” at Mr Mubarak as military helicopters flew overhead.
Organisers 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 at the entrances of the square did nothing to stop the crowds from entering.
The military promised on state TV last night that it would not fire on protesters answering a call for a million to demonstrate, a sign that army support for Mr Mubarak may be unravelling as momentum builds for an extraordinary eruption of discontent and demands for democracy.
“This is the end for him. It’s time,” said Musab Galal, a 23-year-old unemployed university graduate who travelled to the protest from the Nile Delta city of Menoufiya.
Mr Mubarak, 82, would be the second Arab leader pushed from office by a popular uprising in the history of the modern Middle East.
The loosely organised and disparate movement to drive him out is fuelled by deep frustration with an autocratic regime blamed for ignoring the needs of the poor and allowing corruption and official abuse to run rampant.