Saturday, January 29, 2011
Hamza Hendawi and Hadeel al-Shalchi
CAIRO: Embattled President Hosni Mubarak said Friday he has asked his Cabinet to resign in his first appearance on television since protests erupted demanding his ouster and vowed to press ahead with social, economic and political reforms.
Mubarak defended security forces’ crackdown on protesters and called anti-government protests part of plot to destabilize Egypt and destroy the legitimacy of his regime.
Protesters have seized the streets of Cairo, battling police with stones and firebombs, burning down the ruling party headquarters, and defying a night curfew enforced by a military deployment. It is the peak of unrest posing the most dire threat to Mubarak in his three decades of authoritarian rule.
The government’s attempts to suppress demonstrations appeared to be swiftly eroding support from the U.S. – suddenly forced to choose between its most important Arab ally and a democratic uprising demanding his ouster.
The protesters were sure to be emboldened by their success in bringing tens of thousands to the streets in defiance of a ban, a large police force, countless canisters of tear gas, and even a nighttime curfew enforced by the first military deployment of the crisis.
Flames rose in cities across Egypt as police cars burned and protesters set the ruling party headquarters in Cairo ablaze. Hundreds of youth tore TV sets, fans and stereo equipment from other buildings of the National Democratic Party neighboring the Egyptian Museum, home of King Tutankhamun’s treasures and one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions.
Young men could be seen forming a human barricade in front of the museum to protect it.
Others around the city looted banks, smashed cars, tore down street signs and pelted armored riot police vehicles with paving stones torn from roadways.
“We are the ones who will bring change,” said 21-year-old Ahmad Sharif. “If we do nothing, things will get worse. Change must come!”
Options appeared to be dwindling for Mubarak, a 82-year-old former air force commander who until this week maintained what looked like rock-solid control of the most populous Arab nation and the cultural heart of the region.
With looting and arson fires rocking the capital, Mubarak seemed faced
with the choice between a deadly crackdown and major concessions to protesters demanding he step down this year and not hand power to his son, Gamal.
The government cut off the Internet and mobile-phone services in Cairo, called the army into the streets and imposed a nationwide night-time curfew. The measures were ignored by tens of thousands of rich, poor and middle-class protesters who united in rage against a regime seen as corrupt, abusive and neglectful of the nearly half of Egypt’s 80 million people who live below the $2-a-day poverty line.
Friday’s unrest began when tens of thousands poured into the streets after noon prayers, stoning and confronting police who fired back with rubber bullets and tear gas. Demonstrators wielding rocks, glass and sticks chased hundreds of riot police away from the main square in downtown Cairo and several of the policemen stripped off their uniforms and badges and joined the demonstrators.
An Associated Press reporter saw the protesters cheering the police who joined them and hoisting them on their shoulders.
Security officials said there were protests in at least 11 of the country’s 28 provinces, and unrest roiled major cities like Alexandria, Suez, Assiut and Port Said. At least 13 protesters were killed Friday, bringing the death toll for the week of protest to 20. Demonstrators were seen dragging blooded, unconsciousness fellow protesters to waiting cars and on to hospitals.
The uprising united the economically struggling and the prosperous, the secular and the religious. The country’s most popular opposition group, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, did not advertise its presence and it was not immediately clear how much of a role it played in bringing people to the streets. Many protesters chanted “God is great!” and stopped their demonstrations to pray.
Young men in one downtown square clambered onto a statue of Talat Harb, a pioneering Egyptian economist, and unfurled a large green banner that proclaimed “The Middle Class” in white Arabic lettering.
Women dressed in black veils and wide, flowing robes followed women with expensive hairdos, tight jeans and American sneakers.
The crowd included Christian men with keyrings of the cross swinging from their pockets and young men dressed in fast-food restaurant uniforms.
When a man sporting a long beard and a white robe began chanting an Islamist slogan, he was grabbed and shaken by another protester telling him to keep the slogans patriotic and not religious.
In downtown Cairo, people on balconies tossed cans of Pepsi and bottles of water to protesters on the streets below to douse their eyes, as well as onions and lemons to sniff, to cut the sting of the tear gas.
The troubles were preventing trains from coming to Cairo, a city of 18 million people, security officials said.
Some of the most serious violence Friday was in Suez, where protesters seized weapons stored in a police station and asked the policemen inside to leave the building before they burned it down. They also set ablaze about 20 police trucks parked nearby. Demonstrators exchanged fire with policemen trying to stop them from storming another police station and one protester was killed in the gun battle.
In Assiut in southern Egypt, several thousand protesters clashed with police that set upon them with batons and sticks, chasing them through side streets.
Protesters appeared unfazed by the absence of Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, one of the country’s leading pro-democracy advocates. The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency was soaked with a water cannon as protests erupted after Friday, and then prevented by police from leaving after he returned to his home.