Egyptian army steps up presence in chaotic Cairo

ElBaradei appears at main square to encourage demonstrators; 1000s of prisoners flee 4 jails attacked by protesters; Mideast stock markets drop; in first briefing, Netanyahu notes ministers have been ordered to keep mum.

Egypt woman n child311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Egypt woman n child311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Egypt’s most prominent reform advocate called on Sunday for President Hosni Mubarak to resign after the powerful military stepped up its presence across the anarchic capital, closing roads with tanks and sending F-16 fighter jets streaking over downtown.
Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei appeared in Tahrir Square around 7 p.m. “You are the owners of this revolution. You are the future,” he told the cheering crowd.
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“Our essential demand is the departure of the regime and the beginning of a new Egypt in which each Egyptian lives in virtue, freedom and dignity.”
The army’s show of force appeared aimed at quelling looting, armed robbery and arson that broke out alongside pro-democracy protests and have turned the cultural heart of the Arab world into a tableau of once-unimaginable scenes of chaos.
The military made no attempt to disperse some 5,000 protesters gathered at Tahrir Square, a plaza in the heart of downtown Cairo that protesters have occupied since Friday afternoon.
They had violated the curfew to call for the ouster of Mubarak’s regime, which they blame for poverty, unemployment, widespread corruption and police brutality.
One of the senior leaders of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to establish an Islamist state in the Arab world’s most populous nation, told The Associated Press he was heading to Tahrir Square to meet with other opposition leaders.
Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt
Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt
“You can call this a revolution, you can call this an uprising,” Essam el-Erian said.
As the situation in Egypt continues to unfold, with the events certain to have tremendous ramifications for both Israeli and US policy in the region, the two countries were in close consultation at the highest levels over the weekend, monitoring the situation and trading assessments.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke on Saturday evening both with US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and on Sunday Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke by phone with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Netanyahu, in his first public comments on the crisis, said at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting that Israel was “anxiously monitoring” the developments in Egypt and the region.
“Our efforts are designed to continue and maintain stability and security in our region,” he said.
Netanyahu, who last met with Mubarak to discuss the diplomatic process three weeks ago in Sharm e-Sheikh, said “the peace between Israel and Egypt has endured for over three decades, and our goal is to ensure that these relations continue.
“Of course, at this time, we must show maximum responsibility, restraint and good judgment, and, to this end, I have instructed my fellow ministers to refrain from commenting on this issue. Naturally, we are also holding consultations in the appropriate government forums.”
Unlike other countries and international organizations, such as the US, EU and UN, Israel – which obviously has a huge stake in how things turn out in Egypt – has made no official comment on the matter, beyond Netanyahu’s brief comments.
Economic turmoil hits following protests
On the first day of trading across the region after a weekend of protests and violence, nervous investors drove stocks down sharply. Crowds of foreigners filled Cairo International Airport, desperate and unable to leave because dozens of flights were canceled and delayed.
The US Embassy said it was making arrangements to begin flying Americans out on Monday. The families of Israeli diplomats were evacuated over the weekend.
Gangs of armed men attacked at least four jails across Egypt before dawn, helping to free hundreds of Muslim extremists and thousands of other inmates. Young men with guns and large sticks smashed cars and robbed people in Cairo.
The official death toll from five days of growing crisis stood at 97, with thousands wounded, but reports from witnesses across the country indicated that the actual toll was far higher.
The lawlessness, uncertainty, and indications of an attempted exodus from Cairo were gravely damaging Egypt’s economy, particularly tourism, which accounts for as much as 11 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Banks were closed on orders from Egypt’s Central Bank, and the country’s stock market was shut on what is normally the first day of the trading week.
An unprecedented Internet cutoff remained in place for a third day after the country’s four primary Internet providers stopped moving data in and out of the country early on Friday, in an apparent move by authorities to disrupt the organization of demonstrations. Mobile-phone networks were back up but with text-messaging widely disrupted.
Secretary of State Clinton appealed for an orderly transition to lasting democracy, saying the US expects that the protests will lead to free and fair elections.
“I want the Egyptian people to have a chance to chart a new future,” she said. “It’s not a question of who retains power... It’s how are we going to respond to the legitimate needs and grievances expressed by the Egyptian people.”
Widespread looting and attacks erupted after police almost all disappeared on Friday evening, creating a security vacuum only partially filled by the presence of army troops backed by tanks at key sites around the city of 18 million people.
The military has been generally welcomed by demonstrators across Cairo, unlike the widely despised police, and the army sent hundreds more troops and armored vehicles onto the streets starting on Sunday morning.Police return to Cairo's streetsIn the afternoon, truckloads of hundreds of police poured back into Cairo neighborhoods and took up positions on the streets.
Interior Minister Habib al-Adly told police commanders he was ordering security forces to return to the streets in the capital and elsewhere to work in tandem with troops to restore order.
“It is necessary that the police role is quickly restored and that there should be cooperation in the field with the armed forces ... to defend the presence and future of the nation,” he said.
In some spots, cops were jeered by residents who chanted anti-police slogans and demanded that they only be allowed to deploy jointly with the military.
In one part of Tahrir Square, soldiers working with civilian protester volunteers were even checking IDs and bags of people arriving at the square, saying they were searching for weapons and making sure plainclothes police were kept out.
“The army is protecting us, they won’t let police infiltrators sneak in!” one volunteer shouted.
Then, minutes before the start of a 4 p.m. curfew, at least two jets roared over the Nile and toward Tahrir Square.
The jets made several passes over the square, dropping lower every time and setting off alarms in parked cars.
Some protesters clapped and waved to them while others jeered. Lines of army tanks jammed a road leading into Tahrir, and a military helicopter hovered overhead.
“This is terrorism, they are trying to scare the people with the planes and the tanks. They are trying to make people afraid and leave the square,” said Gamal Ahmed, a 40-year-old air-conditioning technician.
By evening, the presence of overtly pious Muslims in the square was conspicuous, suggesting a significant Muslim Brotherhood representation. Hundreds performed the sunset prayers. Veiled women prayed separately.
ElBaradei, the former head of the UN nuclear watchdog left after his brief appearance, and some demonstrators dismissed him as an expatriate long removed from the country’s problems.
“Many people feel he loves prizes and traveling abroad,” said Muhammad Munir, 27. “He’s not really one of the people.”
About two hours later the government announced that it was moving the start of the curfew from 4 p.m. to 3. The widely ignored ban on movement outdoors still ends at 8 a.m.
Mubarak, 82, perpetuated the overriding role of military men in Egyptian politics on Saturday by naming his intelligence chief, former army general Omar Suleiman, to the new role of vice president. Ahmed Shafiq, the outgoing civil aviation minister and Mubarak’s fellow former air force officer, was named prime minister.
State TV on Sunday showed images of Mubarak during what it said was a visit to the country’s military command center. The president looked somber and fatigued in his first public appearance since he addressed the nation late on Friday to promise reform and announce the dismissal of his cabinet.
The brief footage appeared designed to project an image of normalcy.
But Egyptian security officials said that overnight armed men fired at guards in gun battles that lasted hours at the four prisons, including one northwest of Cairo that held hundreds of Islamist militants. The prisoners escaped after starting fires and clashing with guards.
Those who fled included 34 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose lawyer, Abdel-Monaem Abdel-Maqsoud, told AP they were among scores rounded up by authorities ahead of large anti-government demonstrations on Friday. The escapees included at least seven senior members of the group.
The security officials said several inmates were killed and wounded, but gave no specific figures.
The officials told AP that army troops were hunting for the escaped prisoners, in some cases with the help of the police. State television showed footage of what it said was dozens of prisoners recaptured by the army troops, squatting on dirt while soldiers kept watch over them.
In the southern city of Assiut, officials said riot police stormed the city’s main prison to quell a riot, using tear gas and batons against inmates. An AP reporter saw army tanks deployed outside the prison, on bridges straddling the Nile and at the police headquarters.
Thousands of people met to pray in downtown Alexandria, a Mediterranean port city that is a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood. After prayers, the crowd marched toward the city’s old mosque to pray for the souls of those who died in the protests.
Al-Jazeera said that Egyptian authorities ordered the closure of its Cairo news hub overseeing coverage of the country’s massive street protests, and denounced the move as an attempt to “stifle and repress” open reporting.
The Qatar-based network has given nearly round-theclock coverage to the unprecedented uprising against Mubarak and had faced criticism by government supporters and other Arab leaders as a forum to inspire more unrest.
Also on Sunday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for nonviolence in Egypt before an audience that included Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
“With respect to Egypt, I once again make a call for restraint, nonviolence and respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights,” the secretary-general said in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he is attending a summit of the African Union.
The challenges for Africa remain great, Ban said, but he sees “clearer skies ahead” because of the African Union.
“The Charter of the United Nations – of which you are all signatories – and the Constitutive Act of the African Union share the same principles and goals and values – peace, security, stability, human rights, good governance and the rule of law, dignity and economic development, social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,” Ban said.

Jordana Horn in New York contributed to this report.