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Mubarak Fires Egyptian Government But Won't Leave Power, Despite Massive Protests

  • RFE/RL

Egyptian demonstrators demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak wave the national flag on top of an armored vehicle.

Egyptian demonstrators demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak wave the national flag on top of an armored vehicle.

Hundreds of protesters have returned to the streets of Cairo, suggesting that President Hosni Mubarak's decision to disband his government may not be enough to soothe Egyptians' anger over the poverty, unemployment, and corruption plaguing their country.

The protesters called for the resignation of Mubarak, who has vowed to stay in power despite firing his cabinet.

Egypt's outgoing cabinet is expected to formally submit its resignation at a meeting today, and the cabinet spokesman said a new government was likely to be formed swiftly.

The embattled 82-year-old leader also announced sweeping reforms in his first public appearance since thousands of Egyptian citizens took to the streets five days ago to demand that he relinquish his 30-year monopoly on power:

In a sign of new government efforts to restore normalcy, the blackout imposed on mobile-phone services in Cairo and some other parts of the country was lifted today, but Internet services remain disrupted. Protesters have used text messaging and social networking websites to coordinate demonstrations.

Unrest spread throughout the country on January 28, with more than 20 protesters reported killed in clashes with security forces in Cairo, Suez, and Alexandria.

In brief remarks -- in which he cast himself as a champion for the country’s poorest citizens -- Mubarak said he would immediately appoint a new cabinet but would remain in place to lead the country on a program of social, political, and economic reforms.

"I have asked the government to turn in their resignation today, and I will appoint a government tomorrow with clear and precise instructions to deal strictly with the priority that is the current stage," he said.

President Hosni Mubarak told the nation he stands with the country's poor.

"I will not go easy in taking any decisions and will preserve for all Egyptians their security and aspirations," he continued. "And I will defend the security of Egypt and the aspirations of its people, for this is the responsibility and the oath which I had sworn before God and the nation."

Mubarak characterized the street demonstrations as “chaos.”

Hours earlier, he sent the Egyptian Army out to enforce a 6 p.m.-to-7 a.m. national curfew, but thousands of Egyptians remained on the streets of Cairo in defiance of the order. The army didn’t move aggressively to suppress the crowds, some of whom set fire to buildings and property.

Biggest Day Of Protests So Far

The military deployment followed the biggest day of protests so far, with the numbers swelling as Islamic leaders called on their followers to join the demonstrations after Friday Prayers. But the increased numbers of people on the street meant increased number of clashes with police, and as the day wore on the reports of beatings and tear gas attacks multiplied.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama called for calm.

"As the situation continues to unfold, our first concern is preventing injury or loss of life, so I want to be very clear in calling upon the Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters," he said.

"The people of Egypt have rights that are universal. That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech and the ability to determine their own destiny. These are human rights and the United States will stand up for them everywhere," Obama added.

He also called on Mubarak to stop blocking mobile phone service and to restore citizens’ access to the Internet and social networking sites, which Egyptian youth, who started the protest movement, relied on heavily to coordinate their movements.

Obama said he had spoken to Mubarak following his address to the nation and acknowledged the close partnership between Cairo and Washington. But he said the United State has been clear about the need to embrace political, social, and economic reforms “that meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”

"When President Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people tonight, he pledged a better democracy and greater economic opportunity. I just spoke to him, after his speech. And I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise," Obama said.

Revolutionary Slogans

But promises of reform were not what protesters in the street were calling for.

Instead, on the biggest day of protests since they began on January 25, there were chants of "The revolution has come!" and "The army and people are united," and scenes in Cairo of crowds storming the state television building and setting fire to the ruling party’s headquarters.

Ehab El-Zelaky, the managing editor of the independent newspaper "Al-Masry Al-Youm," said "tens of thousands" of people had massed near Cairo's central Tahrir Square and were chanting anti-Mubarak slogans.

"Most of the [chants] now are political, [saying that] this regime no longer has legitimate power, it must go away -- all of them, the governates, the ruling party, the president," he said.

A protester in front of a burning barricade during a Cairo demonstration.

Police fired rubber bullets and water cannons at protesters in the capital in an effort to disperse the crowds.

The Voice of America,s Cairo correspondent, Henry Ridgwell, described the city as night fell as "very tense," with standoffs continuing between security services and protesters, and glowing orange fires dotting the landscape.

Tightening The Screws

Security officials reported protests on January 28 in at least 11 of the country's 28 provinces and said demonstrators had ransacked the national headquarters of Mubarak's ruling party in Cairo, as well as offices in Mansoura and Suez, where some of the most serious violence has occurred.

The protest movement was buoyed on January 27 by the arrival of Nobel Peace laureate and pro-democracy campaigner Mohamed ElBaradei from Vienna. ElBaradei said that "if people, in particular young people...want me to lead the transition, I will not let them down."

But just moments after he joined the demonstrations, ElBaradei was hit by a water cannon and placed under house arrest.

The turmoil in Egypt is being closely watched around the world as it pits one of the Arab world's longest-lasting regimes against mass demands for change.

Similar protests this month toppled the government in Tunisia and spread across the region to Yemen.

The unrest has put the United States in a tricky position, given its long support for many of the region’s leaders, including Mubarak, whom it considers its most important Middle Eastern ally.

On January 28, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeated a message she first delivered last month in Qatar, which was a warning to the region’s governments that the status quo in many countries is unsustainable, given their huge youth population and lack of freedoms and economic opportunities.

On the situation in Egypt, she said, "These protests underscore that there are deep grievances within Egyptian society and the Egyptian government needs to understand that violence will not make these grievances go away."

But the U.S. government has also tightened the screws on Cairo.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs announced that the administration is reviewing its annual $1.5 billion assistance package to Egypt, suggesting that it might be adjusted accordingly, depending on how Mubarak responds to the crisis.

written by Heather Maher in Washington, with Charles Recknagel in Prague and agency reports

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