Mubarak sacks gov't; defends police crackdown on protesters

ByASSOCIATED PRESS, JPOST.COM STAFF
January 29, 2011 04:44

Egyptian president: I am aware of peoples' aspirations; achievements won't come through violence; says first responsibility is to Egyptian people; 30 reported dead, over 1,000 injured.




Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak 311 AP. (photo credit:AP / Egypt TV)

CAIRO — Embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fired his Cabinet early Saturday and promised reforms in his first response to protesters who have mounted the biggest challenge ever to his 30-year rule.

But many protesters were outraged by Mubarak's nationally televised address, in which he also defended the crackdown by police on tens of thousands of demonstrators that drew harsh criticism from the Obama administration Friday, and even a threat to reduce a $1.5 billion program of foreign aid if Egypt escalated the use of force.

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Al-Jazeera reported that protesters were still seen in significant numbers into the early morning hours Saturday, although the anti-government chants died down into the night.

The report noted that the dynamic between protesters and government security forces changed Friday when the military entered the streets in Cairo to replace the police; it said that protesters embraced the military's presence.

The number of people killed in the latest day of anti-government protests in Egypt rose to 30 on Friday, with 13 people killed in the port city of Suez, al-Jazeera reported.

Nearly 20 people were also reportedly injured in the protests in Suez, with over 900 people injured throughout the country.

Mubarak's decision to dismiss Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and the rest of the Cabinet would be interpreted as a serious attempt at bringing change under normal circumstances. But on a day when tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand Mubarak's ouster, it fell far short of expectations.

As a result, options appeared to be dwindling for Mubarak, a 82-year-old former air force commander who until this week maintained what looked like rock-solid control of the most populous Arab nation and the cultural heart of the region.

He addressed the nation minutes after the end of a day of protesters running rampant on the streets of Cairo, battling police with stones and firebombs, burning down the ruling party headquarters, and defying a night curfew enforced by a military deployment.

The government's attempts to suppress demonstrations appeared to have eroded support from the US — suddenly forced to choose between its most important Arab ally and a democratic uprising demanding his ouster.

The protesters were clearly emboldened by their success in bringing tens of thousands to the streets in defiance of a ban, a large police force, countless canisters of tear gas, and even a nighttime curfew enforced by the first military deployment of the crisis.

Flames rose in cities across Egypt as police cars burned and protesters set the ruling party headquarters in Cairo ablaze. Hundreds of young men tore televisions, fans and stereo equipment from other buildings of the National Democratic Party neighboring the Egyptian Museum, home of King Tutankhamun's treasures and one of the country's most popular tourist attractions.

Young men could be seen forming a human barricade in front of the museum to protect it.

Others around the city looted banks, smashed cars, tore down street signs and pelted armored riot police vehicles with paving stones torn from roadways.

Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt

"We are the ones who will bring change," said 21-year-old Ahmed Sharif. "If we do nothing, things will get worse. Change must come!" he screamed through a surgical mask he wore to ward off the tear gas.

Mubarak said the unrest was striking fear in the heart of the majority of Egyptians concerned about the future of their country. He defended a crackdown on protesters that included clouds of tear gas, beatings, rubber bullets and cuts to the Internet and cell phones.

He said he had given them instructions that the protesters be allowed to express their views. But, he said, acts of violence and vandalism left the security forces with no choice but to react to restore order.

"Violence will not solve the problems we face or realize the objectives we aspire to," he said.

Egypt's national airline halted flights for at least 12 hours and a Cairo Airport official said a number of international airlines had canceled flights to the capital, at least overnight. There were long lines at many supermarkets and employees limited bread sales to 10 rolls per person.

Once-unimaginable scenes of anarchy along the Nile played out on television and computer screens from Algiers to Riyadh, two weeks to the day after protesters in Tunisia drove out their autocratic president. Images of the protests in the smaller North African country emboldened Egyptians to launch four straight days of increasingly fearless demonstrations organized over mobile phone, Facebook and Twitter.

The government cut off the Internet and mobile-phone services in Cairo, called the army into the streets and imposed a nationwide night-time curfew. The extreme measures were ignored by tens of thousands of rich, poor and middle-class protesters who united in rage against a regime seen as corrupt, abusive and neglectful of the nearly half of Egypt's 80 million people who live below the poverty line of $2 a day.

"All these people want to bring down the government. That's our basic desire," said protester Wagdy Syed, 30. "They have no morals, no respect, and no good economic sense."

Egypt has been one of the United States' closest allies in the region since President Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel in 1979 after talks at Camp David.

Mubarak kept that deal after Sadat's 1981 assassination and has been a close partner of every US president since Jimmy Carter, helping Washington exert its will on issues that range from suppressing Islamist violence to counterbalancing the rise of Iran's anti-American Shiite theocracy.

The government's self-declared crowning legacy has been its economic achievements: rising GDP and a surging private sector led by a construction boom and vibrant, seemingly recession-proof banks.

But many say the fruits of growth in this formerly socialist economy have been funneled almost entirely to a politically connected elite, leaving average Egyptians surrounded by unattainable symbols of wealth such as luxury housing and high-priced electronics as they struggle to find jobs, pay daily bills and find affordable housing.

Friday's unrest began when tens of thousands poured into the streets after noon prayers, stoning and confronting police who fired back with rubber bullets and tear gas. Demonstrators wielding rocks, glass and sticks chased hundreds of riot police away from the main square in downtown Cairo and several of the policemen stripped off their uniforms and badges and joined the demonstrators.

An Associated Press reporter saw the protesters cheering the police who joined them and hoisting them on their shoulders.

Security officials said there were protests in at least 11 of the country's 28 provinces, and unrest roiled major cities like Alexandria, Suez, Assiut and Port Said. At least one protester was killed Friday, bringing the death toll for the week of protest to eight. Demonstrators were seen dragging blooded, unconsciousness fellow protesters to waiting cars and on to hospitals, but no official number of wounded was immediately available.

The uprising united the economically struggling and the prosperous, the secular and the religious. The country's most popular opposition group, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, did not advertise its presence and it was not immediately clear how much of a role it played in bringing people to the streets.

Many protesters chanted "God is great!" and stopped their demonstrations to pray.

Young men in one downtown square clambered onto a statue of Talat Harb, a pioneering Egyptian economist, and unfurled a large green banner that proclaimed "The Middle Class" in white Arabic lettering.

Women dressed in black veils and wide, flowing robes followed women with expensive hairdos, tight jeans and American sneakers.

The crowd included Christian men with keyrings of the cross swinging from their pockets and young men dressed in fast-food restaurant uniforms.

When a man sporting a long beard and a white robe began chanting an Islamist slogan, he was grabbed and shaken by another protester telling him to keep the slogans patriotic and not religious.

Women were largely unmolested in a city where sexual harassment on the streets is persistent.

In downtown Cairo, people on balconies tossed cans of Pepsi and bottles of water to protesters on the streets below to douse their eyes, as well as onions and lemons to sniff, to cut the sting of the tear gas.

The troubles were preventing trains from coming to Cairo, a city of 18 million people, security officials said.

Some of the most serious violence Friday was in Suez, where protesters seized weapons stored in a police station and asked the policemen inside to leave the building before they burned it down. They also set ablaze about 20 police trucks parked nearby. Demonstrators exchanged fire with policemen trying to stop them from storming another police station and one protester was killed in the gun battle.

In Assiut in southern Egypt, several thousand demonstrators clashed with police that set upon them with batons and sticks, chasing them through side streets.

Protesters appeared unfazed by the absence of Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, one of the country's leading pro-democracy advocates. The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency was soaked with a water cannon as protests erupted after Friday, and then prevented by police from leaving after he returned to his home.

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