Egypt: Explosion of anger decades in the making

Saturday, 29 January 2011


With police stations and the governing party's headquarters in flames and much of Egypt in open revolt, President Hosni Mubarak deployed the nation's military and imposed a near-total blackout on communications to save his authoritarian government of nearly 30 years.

By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK

The New York Times


CAIRO — With police stations and the governing party's headquarters in flames and much of Egypt in open revolt, President Hosni Mubarak deployed the nation's military and imposed a near-total blackout on communications to save his authoritarian government of nearly 30 years.

Protesters continued to defy a nationwide curfew early Saturday as Mubarak, 82, breaking days of silence, appeared on national television, promising to replace the ministers in his government but calling popular protests "part of a bigger plot to shake the stability" of Egypt. He refused calls, shouted by angry crowds in the central squares of Cairo, the northern port of Alexandria and the canal city of Suez, for him to resign.

"I will not shy away from taking any decision that maintains the security of every Egyptian," he vowed as gunfire rang out throughout Cairo.

Those words alone are not likely to placate hundreds of thousands of protesters, who have braved tear gas, beatings, rubber bullets and water cannons while chanting "Down with Mubarak." At least 19 deaths were reported nationwide.

Whether his infamously efficient security apparatus and well-financed but politicized military could enforce order — and whether it would stay loyal to him even if that means bloodshed — were the main questions for many Egyptians.

It was also a pressing concern at the White House, where Egypt's crackdown drew harsh criticism from the Obama administration and a threat Friday to reduce a $1.5 billion foreign-aid program if the United States' most important Arab ally escalates the use of force.

President Obama said he had called Mubarak, and in a televised news conference he urged Mubarak to take "concrete steps" toward the political and economic changes that the regime has repeatedly failed to deliver.

"The United States will continue to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people and work with their government in pursuit of a future that is more just, more free and more hopeful," Obama said.

The upheaval at the heart of the Arab world in a crucial Middle Eastern nation has vast repercussions for the status quo in the region, including tolerance for secular dictators by a new generation of frustrated young people, the viability of opposition that had been kept mute or locked up for years, and the orientation of regional governments toward the United States and Israel, which had long counted Egypt as its most important friend in the region.

New kind of challenge

Many experts were predicting that Mubarak, who has outmaneuvered domestic political rivals and Egypt's Islamic movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, for decades, would find a way to restore control. But the apparently spontaneous, nonideological and youthful protesters posed a new kind of challenge to a state security system focused on more familiar threats from organized religious groups and terrorists.

Friday's protests were the largest and most diverse yet, including young and old, women carrying luxury Louis Vuitton purses and men in galabeyas, factory workers and film stars. All came surging out of mosques after midday prayers and headed for Tahrir Square, and their clashes with the police left clouds of tear gas wafting through empty streets.

For the first time since the 1980s, Mubarak called the military into the streets of the major cities to restore order and enforce a national 6 p.m. curfew. He also ordered Egypt be essentially severed from the global Internet and telecommunications systems.

Even so, videos from Cairo and other major cities showed protesters openly defying the curfew and few efforts being made to enforce it.

Street battles unfolded Friday as hundreds of thousands of people streamed out of mosques after noon prayers in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities.

By nightfall, the protesters had burned down the ruling National Democratic Party's headquarters in Cairo. Looters marched away with computers, briefcases and other equipment emblazoned with the party's logo. Other groups assaulted the Interior Ministry and the state television headquarters until after dark when the military occupied both buildings and regained control. At one point, the U.S. Embassy came under attack.

Six Cairo police stations and several police cars were in flames, and stations in Suez and other cities also were burning. Office equipment and police vehicles burned, and the police seemed to have retreated from Cairo's main streets. Brigades of riot police officers deployed at mosques, bridges and intersections, and they battered the protesters with tear gas, water, rubber-coated bullets and, by day's end, live ammunition.

With the help of five armored trucks and at least two firetrucks, more than 1,000 riot police officers fought most of the day to hold the central Kasr el-Nile bridge. But by nightfall, a crowd of at least twice as many protesters broke through.

The Interior Ministry said nearly 900 were injured there and in the neighboring Giza area, with more than 400 hospitalized with critical injuries. State television said 13 were killed in Suez and 75 injured; at least six were dead in Cairo and Giza.

Escalating unrest

The Egyptian uprising was the biggest outbreak yet in a wave of revolts in the region since the Jan. 14 ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, a country with half Cairo's population of 20 million.

"Tunis, Tunis, Tunis," protesters chanted outside the Tunisian Embassy in Cairo.

"Egyptians right now are not afraid at all," said Walid Rachid, a student taking refuge from tear gas inside a Giza mosque. "It may take time, but our goal will come — an end to this regime."

Mubarak, in his televised address, said he was working to open up democracy and to fight "corruption," and he said he understood the hardships facing the Egyptian people. But, he said, "a very thin line separates freedom from chaos."

His offer to replace his Cabinet is unlikely to be viewed as a major concession; he often changes ministers without undertaking fundamental reforms.

Some protesters expressed hopes the military would somehow take over and potentially oust Mubarak. Others said they despaired that, unlike the relatively small and apolitical army in Tunisia, the Egyptian military was loyal first of all to its own institutions and alumni, including Mubarak.

"Will they stage a coup?" asked Hosam Sowilan, a retired general and a former director of a military research center here. "This will never happen." He added: "The army in Tunisia put pressure on Ben Ali to leave. We are not going to do that here. The army here is loyal to this country and to the regime."

ElBaradei joins protests

One of the protesters leaving a mosque near Cairo was Mohamed ElBaradei, an Egyptian who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the International Atomic Energy Agency and has emerged as a leading critic of the government.

"This is the work of a barbaric regime that is, in my view, doomed," he said after being sprayed by a water cannon and stung by tear gas. Now, he said, "it is the people versus the thugs."

ElBaradei said the crackdown on protesters revealed a "completely desperate" regime that had to be overthrown and bluntly challenged the U.S. and other Western allies of Mubarak, saying it was "time for the international community to express its view on the so-called stability of the Egyptian government."

By Friday night, there were numerous reports ElBaradei's appearance at the front lines was too much for the government, and that the Egyptian police had warned him to stay in his home, effectively placing him under house arrest.

The Muslim Brotherhood, for decades Egypt's only viable opposition movement, had taken a back seat to the youth protest Tuesday. But it called its supporters to the streets Friday.

Many protesters shouted religious slogans that were absent Tuesday, although not the Brotherhood's trademark "Islam is the solution." Instead, the crowds seemed so large and diverse that it was impossible to gauge what proportion might have subscribed to the Brotherhood's Islamist ideology.

"We decided to participate in full force today because we felt that the people were starting to respond," said Gamal Tag Eddin, a lawyer and a member of the Brotherhood. "We could not participate alone because the government uses us to scare people here and abroad. Now that the people have moved, the Brotherhood are in with all their members in order to bring down this oppressive regime."

Several others said they felt shame their homeland — the cradle of civilization and a onetime leader of the Arab world — had slipped toward backwardness and irrelevance, eclipsed by the rise of the Persian Gulf states. Some said they felt outdone by tiny Tunisia.

Mohamed Fouad, sitting near the Ramses Hilton nursing a wound from a rubber-coated bullet in the middle of his forehead, wondered how long it would take to dislodge Mubarak.

"In Tunis, they protested for a month," he said. "But they have 11 million people. We have 85 million."

Material from The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.

Courtesy : The Seattle Times

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