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Scores dead in Egypt as crisis spirals

Mubarak, clinging to power, names VP; army holds back against protesters

Demonstrators demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak filed passed Egyptian Army tanks in Cairo yesterday. Demonstrators demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak filed passed Egyptian Army tanks in Cairo yesterday. (Khaled Desouki/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By David D. Kirkpatrick
New York Times / January 30, 2011

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CAIRO — President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt struggled to maintain a tenuous hold on power yesterday as the police withdrew from the major cities and the military did nothing to hold back tens of thousands of demonstrators defying a curfew to call for an end to his nearly 30 years of authoritarian rule.

As street protests flared for a fifth day, Mubarak fired his Cabinet and appointed Omar Suleiman, his right-hand man and the country’s intelligence chief, as vice president. Mubarak, who was vice president when he took power after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, had steadfastly refused pressure to name any successor, so the move stirred speculation that he was planning to resign.

That, in turn, raised the prospect of an unpredictable handover of power in a country that is a pivotal American ally — a fear that administration officials say factored into President Obama’s calculus not to push for Muba rak’s resignation, at least for now.

The appointments of two former generals — Suleiman and Ahmed Shafik, who was named prime minister — also signaled the central role the armed forces will play in shaping the outcome of the unrest. But even though the military is widely popular with the public, there was no sign that the government shake-up would placate protesters.

Before the street fights late yesterday, government officials had acknowledged more than 70 deaths in the five days of unrest, with 40 in the Cairo region. But the final death toll is likely to be much higher. One doctor in a crowd of protesters said his Cairo hospital alone had seen 23 people dead from bullet wounds.

Yesterday, Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and a leading critic of the government, told Al Jazeera that Mubarak should step down immediately so that a new “national unity government’’ could take over, though he offered no details about its makeup.

Control of the streets cycled through a dizzying succession of stages. After an all-out war against hundreds of thousands of protesters who flooded the streets Friday night, the legions of black-clad security police officers — a reviled paramilitary force focused on upholding the state — withdrew from the biggest cities.

Looters smashed store windows and ravaged shopping malls as police stations and the national party headquarters burned through the night.

Thousands of army troops stepped in late Friday to reinforce the police. By yesterday morning, a sense of celebration took over the central squares of the capital as at least some members of the military encouraged the protesters instead of cracking down on them.

It was unclear whether the soldiers in the streets were operating without orders or in defiance of them. But their displays of support for the protesters were conspicuous throughout the capital. In the most striking example, four armored military vehicles moved at the front of a crowd of thousands of protesters in a pitched battle against the Egyptian security police defending the Interior Ministry.

But the soldiers refused protesters’ pleas to open fire on the security police. And the police battered the protesters with tear gas, shotguns, and rubber bullets. There were pools of blood in the streets, and protesters carried at least a dozen wounded from the front line of the clashes.

Everywhere in Cairo, soldiers and protesters hugged or snapped pictures together on top of military tanks. With the soldiers’ consent, protesters scrawled graffiti denouncing Mubarak on many of the tanks. “This is the revolution of all the people,’’ read a common slogan. “No, no, Mubarak’’ was another.

Some speculated that the sudden withdrawal of the police from the cities — even some museums and embassies in Cairo were left unguarded — was intended to create chaos that could justify a crackdown. And widespread reports of looting returned last night.

While some Egyptians reveled in what appeared to be their new freedom, there were ominous signs of lawlessness in places where the police had abandoned their posts.

In Alexandria yesterday, witnesses were unnerved by the young men on patrol with sticks, clubs, and other weapons.

“We’re Egyptians. We’re real men,’’ said a shopkeeper, brandishing a machete. “We can protect ourselves.’’

Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, said that he observed a group of soldiers surrounded by people asking for help in protecting their neighborhoods. The army told them they would have to take care of their own neighborhoods and that there might be reinforcements today.

“Egypt has been a police state for 30 years. For the police to suddenly disappear from the streets is a shocking experience,’’ Bouckaert said.

State television also announced the arrest of an unspecified number of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed Islamist group long considered the largest and best organized political group in Egypt, for “acts of theft and terrorism.’’

It was unclear, however, what role the Brotherhood played in the protests or might play if it topples Mubarak. Since then, there have been many signs of Brotherhood members marching and chanting in the crowds.

But the throngs — mostly spontaneous — were so large that the Brotherhood’s members seemed far from dominant. Questions about the Brotherhood elicited shouting matches among protesters, with some embracing it and others against it.

Many of the protesters were critical of the United States. Many complained about US government support for Mubarak or expressed disappointment with Obama. But because of Obama’s Muslim family history or because of his much-publicized speech here at the start of his presidency, many of the protesters expressed their criticism by telling American journalists that they had something to tell the president.

“I want to send a message to President Obama,’’ said Mohamed el-Mesry, a middle-aged professional. “I call on President Obama, at least in his statements, to be in solidarity with the Egyptian people and freedom, truly like he says.’’

In Sinai, officials said that the security police had withdrawn from broad portions of the territory, leaving armed Bedouin in control. At least five members of the police, both law enforcement and state security, were killed, officials said.

The unrest continued to reverberate throughout the region, where other autocratic leaders have long held on to power.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia blamed unnamed agitators for the demonstrations in Egypt. The Saudi Press Agency quoted him saying: “No Arab or Muslim can tolerate any meddling in the security and stability of Arab and Muslim Egypt by those who infiltrated the people in the name of freedom of expression, exploiting it to inject their destructive hatred.’’

And in Yemen, dozens of protesters took to the streets of Sana in solidarity with Egyptian demonstrators, local media reported. There were large antigovernment demonstrations in Yemen last week, as government critics were inspired after street demonstrations toppled Tunisia’s government.

The government restored mobile phone connections, turned off Friday morning in an apparent effort to thwart protesters’ coordination. But Internet access remained shut off yesterday.

The army moved to secure Cairo International Airport yesterday as the Associated Press reported that as many as 2,000 people had flocked there in a frantic attempt to leave the country.

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