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Egyptians Defy Curfew To Remain On The Streets

  • RFE/RL

WATCH: Tensions remained high in the Egyptian capital on January 29 as protesters confronted tanks and again called on President Hosni Mubarak to resign. (video by Reuters)

Thousands of Egyptians have defied a second night of state-ordered curfews to remain on the streets and press their demand for the resignation of President Hosni Murbarak, whose 30-year grip on power appears to be slipping as he tries to regain control of the country.

Earlier, the Egyptian government formally resigned, following Mubarak's dismissal of his cabinet during a late-night national address aimed at appeasing the increasingly violent protests over unemployment, repression, and state corruption.

Mubarak picked two military officials to help him try to survive the turmoil: intelligence chief Omar Suleiman for vice president, and Aviation Minister Ahmed Shafiq as prime minister.

Both were hastily sworn into office, but the power shuffle was barely noticed on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, where tens of thousands of citizens spent a fifth day protesting against the 82-year-old leader.

A Cairo resident named Imad said the new faces in the Mubarak regime changed nothing. "To change the government by removing [Prime Minister Ahmed] Nazif and replacing him with another, it's the same. We need to change policies. Since 1993 we work according to the World Bank and their policies. This has brought poverty and 43 percent are under the poverty line and it is all [Mubarak's] fault," he said.

Looting On The Rise

In Cairo, thousands rallied in central Tahrir Square, chanting: "The people want the president to go! The people want the president to go!"

After days of clashes between demonstrators and the country's hated police, the army has taken over enforcing security on the streets of Cairo, which has a population of 18 million. As the tanks have rolled in, members of the police and Central Security Service have vanished -- in some cases driven back by protesters, and in others leaving of their own accord.

Cairo resident Alfred Raouf told RFE/RL that a group of demonstrators he was in had "overwhelmed" a group of police who "fled to their homes."

With police and state security forces no longer at their posts, incidents of looting and vandalism have escalated dramatically. Witnesses report seeing mobs storming supermarkets, commercial centers, banks, private property, and government buildings in Cairo and elsewhere.

Looters also ransacked the Cairo museum, which houses the world's greatest collection of Pharaonic treasures. Several statues were smashed and two mummies were damaged. Raouf said he was part of a citizens' brigade that formed a human chain around the museum to try and stop looters from coming in.

Across Cairo, groups of citizens have stepped in to fill the security gap left by police, using sticks and razors to defend shops and property from looters, some of whom are suspected of being "baltigaya," or thugs for hire, which the regime has used before to sow unrest.

Some demonstrators have reported catching looters and finding government-issued weapons on them, or identity cards from Mubarak's ruling NDP party.

PHOTO GALLERY: Egyptian unrest continues for a fifth straight day:

Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, says it is "no coincidence" that Mubarak characterized the street demonstrations as "chaos" and referred to the "burning of buildings and destruction to public and private property," and now those very scenes are unfolding.

"This is a strategy of the regime. The regime wants to paint a picture to the Egyptian population as well as to the international community that if the regime is ousted, then you will have chaos, you will have mass disorder, you will have violence, you will have looting, and so on," Shehata says.

"So the regime wants to give the Egyptian public and the international community a choice -- 'It's either chaos, or us.' And of course that's not correct, they are responsible for this in multiple ways, both directly and indirectly," he adds.

Security Deteriorating

Tarek el-Shamy, a Cairo correspondent for Alhurra TV, the U.S.-sponsored Arabic-language television network, says that the security situation has deteriorated over the last 36 hours.

"Yesterday night, there were a lot of looters. They burned a lot of shops and banks and other places -- different places -- in Egypt. And actually the people are feeling now that they are not safe," he says.

Even the army seems alarmed by the amount of looting and burning. Al-Jazeera television filmed an army officer standing on his tank and urging citizens to protect their property from "thugs," according to the channel's English translation. At one point the officer promises to "tear off his uniform and join" citizens in defending property.
An Egyptian man kisses an army soldier in central Cairo.

The army's benign, almost friendly, presence on the streets of Cairo reflects its role in Egyptian society. Georgetown's Shehata says that unlike the police or Interior Ministry forces, the army is "not a repressive apparatus of the state," but a well-respected national institution.

He says he would be "surprised" if the army were to fire on large numbers of protesters. But Shehata also says he has seen a high-ranking army official on Egyptian television making a "threatening, menacing statement about the curfew and the actions that would be taken -- the physical force, the violence that would be taken – on people breaking the curfew."

"If the orders were given -- and this is the fear, this is the fear -- if the orders were given by Mr. Mubarak or high-ranking military officials to fire on protesters, then of course we're talking about possibly large numbers of deaths and an escalation of the situation," Shehata says.

Death Toll Climbing

That fear has not deterred Egyptians from remaining on the streets. Health and security officials say some 74 people have been killed so far, including 38 people since January 28, although the real death toll is likely to be much higher.

According to Al-Jazeera, at least 90 people have died so far in the violence, which doesn't seem likely to end soon.

Fardieh Naghash, the managing editor of Egypt's "Al-Ahali" newspaper, says that Mubarak's appearance late on January 28 did not assuage the anger among the country's opposition or citizens.

"The political parties didn't feel that President Mubarak's speech [addressed] their demands -- not only the demonstrators' demands, but also their demands," she says. "Because the opposition parties, beginning 30 years ago, since the beginning of President Mubarak's [presidency], in 1981 -- [have been asking] for real change."

A wounded man who was shot by police during clashes near Cairo's Tahrir square.
The protest movement has been bolstered by leading Egyptian dissident and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who returned to Egypt from Vienna to join what many already describe as a revolution.

ElBaradei has indicated he would be prepared to lead a transitional authority if he were asked. He told France-24 television today that he intended to continue demonstrating.

"I will continue to participate in whatever it takes to make sure that the Mubarak regime should leave," ElBaradei said. "I think that there is a consensus here in Egypt in every part of society that this is a regime that is dictatorial, that has failed to deliver on economic, social or political fronts and that we need a new beginning -- an Egypt that is free and that is democratic and we need to go through a transitional period."

Egypt's opposition movements, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, have also called for a peaceful transfer of power.

Shuffling The Deck

In Washington, President Barack Obama convened a two-hour meeting of his National Security Council. According to a White House statement: "The president was updated on the situation in Egypt. He reiterated our focus on opposing violence and calling for restraint; supporting universal rights; and supporting concrete steps that advance political reform within Egypt."

From the State Department, spokesman Philip Crowley said, via Twitter: "The Egyptian government can't reshuffle the deck and then stand pat. President Mubarak's words pledging reform must be followed by action."

It was an echo of comments Obama made late on January 28 from the White House, in which he said he spoke to Mubarak after his address to the nation, and "told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise" of reform.

Meanwhile, thousands of passengers are stranded at Cairo's airport as flights were canceled or delayed and a natiowide curfew prevented people from leaving the building.

Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan have organized flights to evacuate their citizens. Britain, France, and the United States have warned their citizens against nonessential travel to the country.

written by Heather Maher, with agency reports

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