Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak named a vice president on Saturday, for the first time since coming to power nearly 30 years ago – a clear step toward setting up a successor in the midst of the biggest anti-government protests of his regime.
Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman’s appointment as the country’s first vice president since Mubarak held the post from 1975-1981 may be intended to enable him to take control of a transitional government after Mubarak’s resignation, CNN reported on Saturday evening, citing a senior source in the ruling party.
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A source within the ruling National Democratic Party was quoted by CNN as saying that the appointment of Suleiman “could well be the beginning of a transition allowing the president to step down.”
According to the report, many in Cairo consider Mubarak’s resignation a foregone conclusion; however, no exact information was given as to when the resignation might occur.
After five days of protests, Cairo was engulfed in chaos over the weekend. There was rampant looting, and lawlessness spread fast. Residents of affluent neighborhoods were boarding up their homes against gangs of thugs roaming the streets with knives and sticks, and gunfire was heard in some neighborhoods.
The death toll for five days of protests has risen sharply since Friday to around 100, according Israel Radio. About 2,000 people have also reportedly been injured.
Just after midnight on Saturday, witnesses said police shot dead 17 people who tried to attack two police stations in the Beni Suef governorate, south of Cairo, Reuters reported.
According to the report, 12 of the victims attempted to attack a police station in Biba, while the five others tried to attack another station in Nasser city. Dozens were reported injured in the confrontations.
Tanks and armored personnel carriers fanned out across Cairo, guarding key government buildings. Egyptian television reported the army was deploying reinforcements to neighborhoods to try to control the lawlessness.
The military was protecting major tourist and archeological sites such as the Egyptian Museum, home to some of the country’s most treasured antiquities, as well as the cabinet building. The military closed the Great Pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo – Egypt’s premiere tourist site.
On Friday, protesters burned down the headquarters of Mubarak’s ruling party along the Nile and set fire to other buildings, roaming the streets of downtown Cairo in defiance of a night curfew enforced by the first army deployment.
Thousands of people defied the curfew for the second night on Saturday, standing their ground in the main Tahrir Square in a resounding rejection of Mubarak’s attempt to hang onto power with promises of reform and a new government.
“What we want is for Mubarak to leave, not just his government,” Muhammad Mahmoud, a demonstrator in Tahrir Square, said. “We will not stop protesting until he goes.”
On Saturday, there was no police presence on the streets.
Instead, military tanks and soldiers were stationed at almost every intersection, as the burned skeletons of police vehicles littered the roads from Friday’s violence.
People on their way to Tahrir Square on Saturday scrambled all over the destroyed vehicles, snapping pictures with their cellphones. Residents cheered the tanks whenever they saw them, and some went up to the soldiers and hugged and kissed them, thanking them for being there.
On one tank was scrawled black graffiti: “Down with Mubarak.”
“We hate the police because they have no humanity,” said Tarek Muhammad, a second-year communications student at Cairo University. “The army knows our rights, and knows what we want, and I think our army can change with us.”
In contrast, protesters have attacked police, who are hated for their brutality. On Friday, 17 police stations throughout the capital were torched, with protesters stealing firearms and ammunition and setting some jailed suspects free. They also burned dozens of police trucks in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez.
On Saturday, protesters besieged a police station in the Giza neighborhood of Cairo, looting and pulling down Egyptian flags before burning the building to the ground.
One army captain joined the demonstrators in Tahrir, who hoisted him on their shoulders while chanting slogans against Mubarak. The officer ripped a picture of the president.
“We don’t want him! We will go after him!” demonstrators shouted. They decried looting and sabotage, saying: “Those who love Egypt should not sabotage Egypt!”
When thousands of people tried to storm the Interior Ministry, police opened fire. At least three protesters were killed; their bodies were carried through the crowd.
The demonstrators are unified in one overarching demand: Mubarak and his family must go. The movement is a culmination of years of simmering frustration over a government they see as corrupt, heavy-handed and neglectful of grinding poverty.
Mubarak sacked his cabinet on Saturday and promised reforms to try to quell the protests, but it did not satisfy the demonstrators, who were out in force again to demand a complete change of regime.
The president had been seen as grooming his son Gamal to succeed him, possibly even as soon as in presidential elections planned for later this year. However, there was significant public opposition to the hereditary succession.
The appointment of Suleiman, 74, answers one of the most intriguing and enduring political questions in Egypt: Who will succeed the 82-yearold Mubarak?
Another question is whether his appointment will calm the seething streets of Egypt’s cities.
Like Mubarak, Suleiman has a military background. The powerful military has provided Egypt with its four presidents since the monarchy was toppled nearly 60 years ago. Suleiman has been in charge of some of Egypt’s most sensitive foreign policy issues, including the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
Suleiman, additionally, is widely seen as a central regime figure, a position that protesters were likely to view negatively.
Mubarak also named his new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, the outgoing civil aviation minister and a fellow former air force officer, after the cabinet of prime minister Ahmed Nazif resigned on the president’s orders.
Both appointments perpetuate the military’s overriding role in Egyptian politics.
Earlier Saturday, BBC and Al-Jazeera reported that Mubarak’s two sons, Gamal and Ala, had arrived in London, but the reports were later retracted as both sons were confirmed to still be in Cairo.
Mubarak, confronted with the most dire threat to his three decades of authoritarian rule, faced his nation for the first time since the unrest began in a televised address after midnight. He made vague promises of social reform in what is likely to be interpreted as an attempt to cling to power rather than a genuine pledge solve the country’s pressing problems.
He also defended his security forces and accused the protesters of plotting to destabilize Egypt and destroy the legitimacy of his regime, outraging those still in the streets well into the night.
“We want Mubarak to go, and instead he is digging in further,” protester Kamal Muhammad said. “He thinks it is calming down the situation, but he is just angering people more.”
Zahi Hawass, the nation’s top archeologist, meanwhile, told state television on Saturday that he was “seriously concerned” about the safety of the capital’s famed Egyptian Museum. Neighboring buildings were gutted by fires on Friday night, and he feared they would collapse and damage the museum, home to the treasures of King Tutankamun and other priceless artifacts.
On Friday night, young men formed a human barricade to protect the museum.
But Israel Radio reported on Saturday night that looters had entered the museum and stolen some rare items.
Buildings, statues and even armored security vehicles were covered in anti- Mubarak graffiti, including the words “Mubarak must fall,” which by morning had been written over to say “Mubarak fell.”
The military extended the hours of the night curfew imposed on Friday in the three major cities, where the worst violence has been seen – Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. State television said it would begin at 4 p.m. and last until 8 a.m., longer than the 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. ban on Friday night that appeared to not have been enforced.
Internet appeared blocked for a second day to hamper protesters who use social networking sites to organize. And after cellphone service was cut on Friday, two of the country’s major providers were up and running on Saturday.
Protesters have used text messaging and social networking websites to coordinate demonstrations.
In the capital on Friday night, hundreds of young men carted away televisions, fans and stereo equipment looted from the ruling National Democratic Party’s headquarters near the Egyptian Museum.
Others around the city looted banks, smashed cars, tore down street
signs and pelted armored riot police vehicles with paving stones torn up
After years of simmering discontent in this nation where protests are
generally limited, Egyptians were emboldened to take to the streets by
the uprising in Tunisia.
On Friday, massive crowds numbering in the tens of thousands overwhelmed
police forces in Cairo and other cities, attacking them with rocks and
firebombs. The primary weapons of police have been tear gas, batons and
sticks. They have also fired rubber bullets and used water cannons.
In a clear sign that things had spiraled out of police control, Mubarak
had called in the military by Friday night to enforce the night curfew.
Late at night, there were scenes of armored personnel carriers filled
with troops rolling slowly down the picturesque corniche along the Nile,
thronged by cheering crowds.
News agencies and JPost.com staff contributed to this report.