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Furor forces Mubarak’s hand

Egyptian leader says he will oust Cabinet; military deployed as curfew is defied

Egyptian protesters clashed with riot police in Cairo yesterday, and activists continued to defy a curfew early today. Egyptian protesters clashed with riot police in Cairo yesterday, and activists continued to defy a curfew early today. (Ben Curtis/ Associated Press)
By David D. Kirkpatrick
New York Times / January 29, 2011

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CAIRO — With police stations and the Egyptian governing party’s headquarters in flames, and much of this crucial Middle Eastern nation in open revolt, President Hosni Mubarak deployed the nation’s military and imposed a near-total blackout on communications to save his authoritarian government of nearly 30 years.

Protesters continued to defy a nationwide curfew early today, as Mubarak, 82, breaking days of silence, appeared on national television, promising to replace the ministers in his government, but calling popular protests “part of bigger plot to shake the stability’’ of Egypt. He refused calls for him to resign, shouted by angry crowds in the central squares of Cairo, the northern port of Alexandria and the canal city of Suez.

“I will not shy away from taking any decision that maintains the security of every Egyptian,’’ he vowed, as gunfire rang out around Cairo.

Whether his infamously efficient security apparatus and well-financed but politicized military could enforce that order — and whether it would stay loyal to him even if it came to shedding blood — was the main question for many Egyptians.

It was also a pressing concern for the White House, where President Obama called Mubarak and then, in his own television appearance last night, urged him to take “concrete steps’’ toward the political and economic reform that the US ally had repeatedly failed to deliver.

Whatever the fallout from the protests — be it change that comes suddenly or unfolds over years — the upheaval at the heart of the Arab world has vast repercussions for the status quo in the region, including tolerance for secular dictators by a new generation of frustrated youth, the viability of opposition that had been kept mute or locked up for years, and the orientation of regional governments toward the United States and Israel, which had long counted Egypt as its most important friend in the region.

Many regional experts were still predicting that Mubarak, who has outmaneuvered domestic political rivals and Egypt’s Islamic movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, for decades, would find a way to suppress dissent and restore control. But the apparently spontaneous, nonideological and youthful protesters also posed a new kind of challenge to a state security system focused on more traditional threats from organized religious groups and terrorists.

Yesterday’s protests were the largest and most diverse yet, including young and old, women with Louis Vuitton bags and men in galabeyas, factory workers and film stars. All came surging out of mosques after midday prayers headed for Tahrir Square, and their clashes with the police left clouds of tear gas wafting through empty streets.

For the first time since the 1980s, Mubarak felt compelled to call the military into the streets of the major cities to restore order and enforce a national 6 p.m. curfew. He also ordered that Egypt be essentially severed from the global Internet and telecommunications systems. Even so, videos from Cairo and other major cities showed protesters openly defying the curfew and few efforts being made to enforce it.

Street battles unfolded throughout the day yesterday, as hundreds of thousands of people streamed out of mosques after noon prayers in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities.

The uprising here was also the biggest outbreak yet in a wave of youth-led revolts around the region since the Jan. 14 ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia — a country with just half Cairo’s population of 20 million.

“Egyptians right now are not afraid at all,’’ said Walid Rachid, a student taking refuge from tear gas inside a Giza mosque. “It may take time, but our goal will come, an end to this regime. I want to say to this regime: 30 years is more than enough. Our country is going down and down because of your policies.’’

Mubarak, in his televised address, said he was working to open up democracy and to fight “corruption,’’ and he said he understood the hardships facing the Egyptian people. But, he said, “a very thin line separates freedom fro chaos.’’

His offer to replace his Cabinet is unlikely to be viewed as a major concession; Mubarak often changes ministers without undertaking fundamental reforms.

A crowd of young men who had gathered around car radios on a bridge in downtown Cairo to listen to the speech said they were enraged by it, saying they had heard it before and wanted him to go.

“Leave, leave,’’ they chanted, vowing to return to the streets the next day. “Down, down with Mubarak.’’

A bonfire of office furniture from the ruling party headquarters was burning nearby, and the carcasses of police vehicles were still smoldering. The police appeared to have retreated from large parts of the city.

Protesters throughout the day spoke of the military’s eventual deployment as a foregone conclusion, given the scale of the uprising and Egyptian history. The military remains one of Egypt’s most esteemed institutions, a source of nationalist pride.

It was military officers who led the coup that toppled the British-backed monarch here in 1952, and all three of Egypt’s presidents, including Mubarak, a former air force commander, have risen to power through the ranks of the military. It has historically been a decisive factor in Egyptian politics and has become a major player — a business owner — in the economy as well.

Some protesters seemed to welcome the soldiers, even expressing hopes that the military would somehow take over and potentially oust Mubarak. Others said they despaired that, unlike the relatively small and apolitical army in Tunisia, the Egyptian military was loyal first of all to its own institutions and alumni, including Mubarak.

“Will they stage a coup?’’ asked Hosam Sowilan, a retired general and a former director of a military research center here. “This will never happen.’’ He added: “The army in Tunisia put pressure on Ben Ali to leave. We are not going to do that here. The army here is loyal to this country and to the regime.’’

One of the protesters leaving a mosque near Cairo was Mohamed ElBaradei, an Egyptian who won the Noble Peace Prize for his work with the International Atomic Energy Agency and has since emerged as a leading critic of the government.

“This is the work of a barbaric regime that is in my view doomed,’’ he said after being sprayed by a water cannon.

Now, he said, “it is the people versus the thugs.’’

The Muslim Brotherhood, for decades Egypt’s only viable opposition movement, had taken a back seat to the youth protest Tuesday. But, perhaps stunned at the scale of that uprising, it called its supporters to the streets in full force yesterday.

Many protesters shouted religious slogans that were absent Tuesday, although not the Brotherhood’s trademark “Islam is the solution.’’ Instead, the crowds seemed so large and diverse that it was impossible to gauge what proportion might have subscribed to the Brotherhood’s Islamist ideology.

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