Amid protests, many ask what Egyptian army will do

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 29, 2011 

CAIRO, Egypt — Tens of thousands of Egyptians broke curfew Saturday to march in Cairo and other major cities in a clear message to U.S.-allied president Hosni Mubarak that nothing short of his resignation would end anti-government protests.

The police, who were the targets of much of Friday’s violence, had vanished from the streets and were replaced by the more popular Egyptian army, which was welcomed by protesters who hugged soldiers and snapped souvenir photos of their tanks.

But the absence of the police also created an opening for gangs of thugs who looted private homes and shops and prompted some neighborhoods to form vigilante groups that intercepted cars and kept non-residents out.

Throughout the day, the military showed extraordinary restraint, even allowing some protesters to write graffiti on some tanks: “Down with Mubarak!” But Egyptians were bracing for a showdown. The question was, will the army stand with the people or with the Mubarak regime?

“This is the nation’s army, not Mubarak’s army," said Nabil Abdel Fattah, deputy director of the Cairo-based Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “I think the army will take the side of the Egyptian national movement.“

By 10 p.m. Saturday, most of the protesters had gone home, though criminal elements continued their looting.

The military sent reinforcements to vulnerable Cairo districts and to affluent suburbs, where private homes reportedly came under attack by marauding youths. Egyptian families grabbed homemade weapons and stood together outside their doorsteps to fight off gangs in neighborhoods across Cairo.

More than 100 people have died in the unrest of the past week, including at least 25 in Cairo, 38 in Suez and 36 in Alexandria, according to tallies on local TV stations. The Al Jazeera satellite television network broadcast footage of at least 20 dead Egyptians in morgues, along with images of their distraught relatives clamoring outside hospitals.

Later, the same network aired video showing the aftermath of looting of antiquities at Cairo’s famed Egyptian Museum _ damaged mummies, statues knocked off their pedestals and empty cases that once held 4,000-year-old jewelry.

The Egyptian army sent troops into the museum, who were patrolling around mummies, statues and displays. Until the army secured the site, people fended off the looters with human chains. There was some concern Saturday that the museum could be damaged by a still-smoldering fire next door at the ruling party headquarters.

Mubarak, who’s never named a vice president during his 30-year rule, appointed his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, as his second-in-command. He also named Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force chief of staff, as the new prime minister.

To protesters, however, the president’s overhaul of his cabinet was too little, too late.

“What cabinet? Since when does the government rule? All of the power is in the hands of the president,” said Ahmed Salah, 45, as he joined thousands of protesters at a downtown Cairo rally.

In Washington on Saturday, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley used Twitter to caution the Egyptian government that it "can't reshuffle the deck and then stand pat."

"President Mubarak's words pledging reform must be followed by action," he wrote.

Crowley also said that the U.S. remains "concerned about the potential for violence and again urges restraint on all sides."

President Barack Obama, who spoke to Mubarak on Friday, met for an hour Saturday afternoon with Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and other top advisers, the White House said. Donilon earlier in the day had a two-hour meeting at the White House that included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other high-level administration officials.

The president "reiterated our focus on opposing violence and calling for restraint; supporting universal rights; and supporting concrete steps that advance political reform within Egypt," the White House said in a statement.

The message was much the same from European leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, who called Mubarak Saturday evening to express "grave concern" about violence against anti-government protesters.

Cameron issued a joint statement with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"The Egyptian people have legitimate grievances and a longing for a just and better future," they said. "We urge President Mubarak to embark on a process of transformation which should be reflected in a broad-based government and in free and fair elections."

Mubarak dissolved his cabinet overnight Friday, promising to start anew with a focus on the public’s chief complaints of unemployment, poverty and a lack of basic services. By late Saturday, only the vice president and the prime minister had been announced.

Suleiman is a shadowy and powerful former general and has served as an important negotiator for Egypt in Palestinian-Israeli talks. Shafiq served as civil aviation minister and is credited with revamping Cairo’s busy airport, which is vital for the lucrative tourism industry. While both men are close associates of Mubarak, they are generally viewed as less corrupt than other members of the ruling party.

Political analysts said Egypt’s leaderless revolutionaries wouldn’t accept a mere reshuffling of the same old faces and would continue their rallies until Mubarak is forced out.

“Anything short of these demands and people will not be pacified,” said Amr Hamzawy, research director at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East branch in Beirut, who witnessed the unrest firsthand.

“Traditionally, the state was strong and the people were weak," he said. Now it’s a reversed equation. The people are in a strong position and the state weak.”

Mubarak appeared to be running out of options, faced with unprecedented rallies against him, a military of uncertain loyalty and growing international pressure to restore order. He held crisis discussions with his close advisers.

Nearly two hours past the 4 p.m. curfew, streets in Cairo, Alexandria and other major cities were clogged with anti-government protesters. But the demonstrations remained peaceful, in contrast to Friday's orgy of violence that saw mobs set fire to government buildings, sack police stations, and beat police officers they had pulled from their motorbikes. In the crowded mayhem of Cairo Friday night, young protesters proudly displayed helmets they'd captured from riot police during the day's melees.

On Saturday In Cairo and the port city of Alexandria, looters emptied major department stores and ransacked rows of shops. Local news reports were filled with stories of attempted bank robberies. With no sign of government authority, ordinary Egyptians formed neighborhood watch parties to fight off looters, who cleaned out shops and had begun targeting homes.

Outside McClatchy’s Cairo Bureau, for example, men from the block sealed off the street and kept roaming youths at bay. This ad hoc force patrolled the streets with pistols, machetes, chains and kitchen knives strapped to the ends of broomsticks. “Get back, get back,” the men called the strangers who approached their unofficial checkpoint.

Shots were fired on the street as the looters encroached on the shops.

Even as they hunkered down, families on the fifth floor of an apartment in the Cairo neighborhood of Giza reported hearing the crashing and destruction of looters ransacking shops below.

In Menya, about four hours south of Cairo along the Nile, there have been protests and looting in the hometown of Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak.

Throughout the country, protesters took over police stations, which have long been centers for torture and open-ended detentions, in some cases sacking and burning them down, but in others allowing police to escape. In Cairo, rioters ransacked and set ablaze the headquarters of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, a scene repeated in several other cities.

In Alexandria, witnesses said rioters had torched every police precinct and several government offices. Tanks surrounded the main courthouse and some shopping centers.

For the most part, however, Alexandrians were in charge of their own security. “People are actually restoring order on the streets themselves. I saw civilians directing traffic and forming a human fence around private property, like car dealerships and gas stations,” said Karim Mossaad, 29, who drove from Alexandria to Cairo early Saturday after being stranded there overnight in the violence.

On the road to the capital, he said, the people had taken over even the tollbooths. “I don’t know who they were, but I paid it,” Mossaad said. “I was just happy they were there, and things were kind of orderly. Everything can’t just stop. “

(Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent. Allam and Naggar reported from Cairo, Bolstad from Washington. Nancy Youssef of the Washington Bureau also contributed.)

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