The protests on Friday marked the first time the military was deployed onto the streets of Cairo
By David D. Kirkpatrick and Alan Cowell
The New York Times
CAIRO — President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt appeared on television late Friday night and ordered his government to resign, but backed his security forces’ attempts to contain the surging unrest around the country that has shaken his 28-year authoritarian rule.
He did not offer to step down himself and spent much of the short speech explaining the need for stability, saying that while he was “on the side of freedom,” his job was to protect the nation from chaos.
Several hours earlier, he had ordered the military into the streets to reinforce police struggling to contain riots by tens of thousands of Egyptians.
The president also imposed an overnight curfew nationwide, but demonstrators defied the order, remaining in the streets of the capital, setting fire to police cars and burning the ruling party headquarters to the ground. As smoke from the fires blanketed one of the city’s main streets along the Nile, crowds rushed the Interior Ministry and state television headquarters, but the military moved into the buildings to establish control. Protesters also tried to attack the American Embassy.
Senior Egyptian military commanders cut short a previously scheduled visit to the Pentagon to rush home to Cairo, American military officials said.
The demonstrations, on what protesters called a “day of wrath,” were on a scale far beyond anything in the memory of most residents and struck several cities besides the capital, including Suez, Alexandria and Port Said. At least one person died, in Suez, according to news reports, and the Interior Ministry said nearly 900 were injured in the Cairo area alone.
The unrest in Egypt — fueled by frustrations over government corruption, economic stagnation and a decided lack of political freedom — came after weeks of turmoil across the Arab world that toppled one leader in Tunisia and encouraged protesters to overcome deep-rooted fears of their authoritarian leaders and take to the streets. But Egypt is a special case: a heavyweight in Middle East diplomacy, in part because of its peace treaty with Israel, and a key ally of the United States.
The country, often the fulcrum on which currents in the region turn, also has one of the largest and most sophisticated security forces in the Middle East.
Calling out the military is a signal of how dramatically the situation had spiraled out of control after four days of demonstrations. The army, one of the country’s most powerful and respected institutions, prefers to remain behind the scenes and has not been sent into the streets since 1986.
But the police, a much reviled force prone to violent retribution against anyone who publicly defies the state, appeared unable to quell the unrest despite a heavy-handed response that included beatings of protesters and the firing of a water cannon at Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei. In several cases in the capital and elsewhere, the police were forced to back down by throngs of protesters.
In one of the most arresting scenes of the day, in Alexandria, protesters snatched batons, shields and helmets from the police. Honking cars drove up and down a main street, holding police riot shields and truncheons out the windows as trophies.
In both Cairo and Alexandria, some army patrols were greeted with applause and waves from the crowds — a seemingly incongruous response from demonstrators who say they want to bring down the president. But many people support the army for its success in shocking the Israeli Army with a surprise attack in 1973 and for its perceived reluctance, at least in the past, to get involved in politics.
As the chaos continued, it appeared some Egyptians might be taking steps on their own to stop any destruction. An Al Jazeera correspondent, who had spoken by phone to eye witnesses at the National Museum, said that thousands of protesters had formed a “human shield” around the museum to defend from possible looting of antiquities, though there were no confirmed reports that such looting had begun.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, reading a prepared statement, called Friday on Egypt’s government to “restrain the security forces” and said that “reform is absolutely critical to the well-being of Egypt.” “We urge the Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful protest and to reverse the unprecedented steps it has take to cut off communications,” she said, apparently referring to interruptions in Internet and cellphone connections in some cities. She also urged that protesters “refrain from violence and express themselves peacefully.” After her comments, the State Department issued a travel alert cautioning Americans against all nonessential trips to Egypt in the next month.
The unrest in Egypt poses unique challenges for the Obama administration, which has publicly supported Mr. Mubarak but privately pushed him to reform after decades in power. President Obama had not spoken with the Egyptian leader about Friday’s unrest, the White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said in an afternoon news conference. He added that the Egyptian people’s “legitimate grievances” need to be addressed “immediately.”
In Suez, east of Cairo and the site of some of the most violent clashes, Reuters reported that protesters were carrying a man’s body through the streets as one demonstrator shouted, “They have killed my brother.” Details of his death were not immediately clear. Jazeera reported that at least three buildings were on fire in the city late in the day, including a liquor store and a building belonging to a particularly unpopular member of the ruling party.
According to the Associated Press, Egyptian security officials said they had placed Mr. ElBaradei, the country’s most prominent opposition figure, under house arrest, but that could not be independently confirmed and reports throughout the day had been contradictory.
After being doused by the water cannon, Mr. ElBaradei took shelter in a nearby mosque. “This is an indication of a barbaric regime,” said Mr. ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. “By doing this they are ensuring their destruction is at hand.”
Early in the day in Cairo, protesters set fire to a police truck as police lobbed tear gas to try to block to a key bridge across the Nile from the island of Zamalek, After battling for hours, protesters succeeding in driving the police from the bridge.
Television images showed plainclothes security policemen beating protesters, and dramatic video footage on Al Jazeera showed a crowd pushing what they identified as a burning police car off a bridge.
At Al Azhar in old Cairo, thousands of people poured from one of the most iconic mosques of Sunni Islam, chanting “The people want to bring down the regime.” The police fired tear gas and protesters hurled rocks as they sought to break though police lines. From balconies above the street, residents threw water and lemons to protesters whose eyes were streaming from tear gas.
In a stunning turn of events during the day in Alexandria, one pitched battle ended with protesters and police shaking hands and sharing water bottles on the same street corner where minutes before they were exchanging hails of stones and tear-gas canisters were arcing through the sky. Thousands stood on the six-lane coastal road then sank to their knees and prayed.
Internet and cellphone connections have been disrupted or restricted in Cairo, Alexandria and other places, cutting off social-media Web sites that had been used to organize protests and complicating efforts by the news media to report on events on the ground. Some reports said journalists had been singled out by police who used batons to beat and charge protesters.
One cellphone operator, Vodafone, said on Friday that Egypt had told all mobile operators to suspend services in selected areas of the country. Vodafone, a British company, said it would comply with the order, Reuters reported.
In Alexandria, as soon as Friday prayers ended, a crowd of protesters streamed out of one mosque, chanting “Wake up, wake up son of my country. Come down Egyptians.”
Police there closed on the crowd, firing tear gas as the demonstrators pelted them with stones. A stone struck the officer firing the gas from the top of the truck and the truck pulled back, but reinforcements quickly arrived and officers marshaled a new offensive.
The protest in Alexandria turned into a block-by-block battle. The riot police managed to push the demonstrators one block back from the mosque, sealing it off from both sides and slowly advancing behind the tear-gas truck.
Several women shouted “dirty government,” leaning from the balconies of their high-rise apartments to hurl bottles down on the police. Officers pounded their clear shields with their billy clubs and chanted in unison.
“We wanted this to be a peaceful demonstration, but we are all Egyptians,” said Ahmed Mohammed Saleh, 26, a protester in Alexandria who had been struck by a rubber bullet.
In Cairo, too, an eerie silence fell in one section of the city at midafternoon, as hundreds of protesters began a prayer session in the middle of the street, according to live images from Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite channel. Protesters bowed their heads as smoke billowed into the air behind them from the skirmishes between demonstrators and riot police.
Despite predictions otherwise, there were only sporadic protests elsewhere in the region. The Yemeni capital of Sana, where thousands had gathered a day before, was quiet Friday. In Jordan, thousands also took to the streets after Friday prayers but the demonstrations were peaceful. Across the Middle East, attention seemed focused on Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country. Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, the most influential Arab satellite channels, broadcast nonstop coverage of the demonstrations in Cairo.
“It has blown up in Egypt,” read the front page of Al Akhbar, an influential leftist daily newspaper in Beirut. “Today all eyes are focused on the mosques in the land of Egypt, where the protests are expected to reach their peak.”
The protests across Egypt have underscored the blistering pace of events that have transformed the Arab world, particularly among regimes that have traditionally enjoyed the support of successive administrations in Washington.
Earlier this month, entrenched autocracies seemed confident of their ability to ride out the protests. But, just two weeks ago, on Jan. 14, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia fled abruptly into exile after weeks of protest, and his departure emboldened demonstrators to take to the streets in other countries.
Images of the lowly challenging the mighty have been relayed from one capital to the next, partly through the aggressive coverage of Al Jazeera. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have given the protesters a potent weapon, enabling them to elude the traditional police measures to monitor and curb dissent. But various regimes have fallen back on a more traditional playbook, relying on security forces to face angry demonstrators on the streets.
On Thursday, the Muslim Brotherhood, which had remained formally aloof from the earlier protests, seemed to be seeking to align itself with the youthful and apparently secular demonstrators, saying it would support Friday’s protests. But it was unclear what role the Brotherhood had played in Friday’s protests, which seemed to be spearheaded by angry young people and to include a cross-section of Egyptians. Even some of the capital’s wealthiest neighborhoods such as Zamalek and Maddi were caught up in the turmoil.
David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo and Alan Cowell from Paris. Reporting was contributed by Kareem Fahim, Mona El-Naggar, Liam Stack, Dawlat Magdy and Stephen Farrell in Cairo; Nicholas Kulish and Souad Mekhennet in Alexandria, Egypt; Anthony Shadid and Nada Bakri in Beirut, Lebanon; J. David Goodman in New York; and Mark Landler, Elisabeth Bumiller and Andrew W. Lehren in Washington.
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