CAIRO (Reuters) – President Hosni Mubarak, clinging on despite unprecedented demands for an end to his 30-year rule, met on Sunday with the military which is seen as holding the key to Egypt’s future while in Cairo, protesters defied a curfew.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States wanted an “orderly transition” through free and fair elections in its key ally and the Arab world’s most populous nation.
An earthquake of unrest is shaking Mubarak’s authoritarian grip on Egypt and the high command’s support is vital as other pillars of his ruling apparatus crumble, political analysts said as protests ran on through a sixth day.
As thousands gathered in the streets, unmolested by patient troops in their American-built tanks, the fragmented opposition gave a sign of coming together. Nobel peace laureate and retired international diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei said he had been given a mandate to reach out to the army and build a new government:
“Mubarak has to leave today,” he told CNN before joining thousands of demonstrators in central Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
“The people want the regime to fall!” the crowd chanted.
Clinton told Fox News: “We want to see an orderly transition so that no one fills a void … We also don’t want to see some takeover that would lead not to democracy but to oppression and the end of the aspirations of the Egyptian people.” As many as 10,000 people protested in Tahrir Square, a rallying point in the center of Cairo, to express anger at poverty, repression, unemployment and corruption.
As the curfew started and was ignored, warplanes and helicopters flew over the square. By late afternoon more army trucks appeared in a show of military force but no one moved.
“Hosni Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, both of you are agents of the Americans,” shouted protesters, referring to the appointment on Saturday of intelligence chief Suleiman as vice president, the first time Mubarak has appointed a deputy in 30 years of office.
It was the position Mubarak, 82, held before he become president and many saw the appointment as ending his son Gamal’s long-predicted ambitions to take over and as an attempt to reshape the administration to placate reformists.
Mubarak held talks with Suleiman, Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Chief of Staff Sami al-Anan and others.
Clearly those in Tahrir Square did not wish to see Mubarak’s ruling structure replaced by a military line-up featuring his closest associates. “Mubarak, Mubarak, the plane awaits,” they said. There was also a big protest in Alexandria.
A senior figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned Islamist group that has long seemed the strongest single force against Mubarak, said it backed ElBaradei as negotiator.
The Muslim Brotherhood has stayed in the background although several of its senior officials have been rounded up. The government has accused it of planning to exploit the protests.
SHOCKWAVES AROUND MIDDLE EAST
The turmoil, in which more than 100 people have died, has sent shock waves through the Middle East where other autocratic rulers may face similar challenges, and unsettled financial markets around the globe as well as Egypt’s allies in the West.
In Tunisia, the detonator of the regional movement, an exiled Islamist leader was welcomed home by thousands on Sunday. In Sudan, Egypt’s southern neighbor, police beat and arrested students taking part in anti-government protests in Khartoum.
For Egyptians, the final straw seems to have been parliamentary elections in November last year, which observers said authorities rigged to exclude the opposition and secure Mubarak’s ruling party a rubber-stamp parliament.
The military response to the crisis has been ambivalent. Troops now guard key buildings after police lost control of the streets, but have neglected to enforce a curfew, often fraternizing with protesters rather than confronting them.
It remains to be seen if the armed forces will keep Mubarak in power, or decide he is a liability to Egypt’s national interests, and their own. It was also unclear if Mubarak had decided to talk with the generals or if he was summoned by them.
It was Tunisian generals who persuaded former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee last month after weeks of protests.
In Suez, on the canal, one senior local officer, Brigadier Atef Said said his troops would give protesters a free voice:
“We will allow protests in the coming days,” he told Reuters. “Everyone has the right to voice their opinion. We’re listening and trying to help and satisfy all parties. We’re not here to stop anyone. These are our people.”
The crisis deepened on Sunday with Egyptians facing lawlessness on the streets with security forces and citizens trying to stop rampaging looters.
Through the night, Cairo residents armed with clubs, chains and knives formed vigilante groups to guard neighborhoods from marauders after the unpopular police force withdrew following the deadly clashes with protesters.
As a result the army has deployed in bigger numbers across Egypt, easing some of the panic over law and order. In central Cairo, army check points were set up at some intersections.
“The armed forces urged all citizens to abide by the curfew precisely and said it would deal with violators strictly and firmly,” state television issued a statement.
Residents expressed hope the army, revered in Egypt and less associated with daily repression than the police and security agencies, would restore order.
Army tanks and tracked vehicles stood at the capital’s street corners, guarding banks as well as government offices including Interior Ministry headquarters. State security fought with protesters trying to attack the building on Saturday night.
TANKS SPRAYED WITH SLOGANS
In surreal scenes, soldiers from Mubarak’s army stood by tanks covered in anti-Mubarak graffiti: “Down with Mubarak. Down with the despot. Down with the traitor. Pharaoh out of Egypt.”
Asked how they could let protesters scrawl anti-Mubarak slogans on their vehicles, one soldier said: “These are written by the people, it’s the views of the people.”
Egypt’s sprawling armed forces — the world’s 10th biggest and more than 468,000-strong — have been at the heart of power since army officers staged the 1952 overthrow of the king. It benefits from about $1.3 billion a year in U.S. military aid.
Egypt’s military appears to be showing restraint and there is no talk at this time about halting U.S. aid to Egypt, Clinton told ABC on Sunday.
Egyptian state television largely ignored protests until Friday, the biggest day when a curfew was announced. Since then it has given more coverage but has focused on disorder and shown pictures of small protests, not the mass gatherings.
The government has interfered with Internet access and mobile phone signals to try and disrupt demonstrators’ plans.
TUMULT HITS TOURISTS
The tumult was affecting Egypt’s tourist industry and the United States and Turkey said they were offering evacuation flights for citizens anxious to leave. Other governments advised their citizens to leave Egypt or to avoid traveling there.
The United States and European powers were busy reworking their Middle East policies, which have supported Mubarak, turning a blind eye to police brutality and corruption in return for a bulwark against first communism and now militant Islam.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was closely watching events in Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1979. It has served a key role in Israel-Palestinian peace talks.
“This is the Arab world’s Berlin moment,” said Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics, comparing the events to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “The authoritarian wall has fallen, and that’s regardless of whether Mubarak survives.”