Egyptian leader defends security responseEmbattled President Hosni Mubarak appeared on television for the first time since protests erupted demanding his ouster, and he says he will press ahead with social, economic and political reforms.
By: Hadeel Al-Shalcht and Hamza Hendawi, Associated Press
CAIRO - Embattled President Hosni Mubarak has appeared on television for the first time since protests erupted demanding his ouster, and he says he will press ahead with social, economic and political reforms.
Mubarak said during the television appearance that he has asked his Cabinet to resign.
But he says he will press ahead with social, economic and political reforms. He calls anti-government protests part of a plot to destabilize Egypt and destroy the legitimacy of his regime.
He also defended security forces' crackdown on protesters.
Protesters have seized 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. It is the peak of unrest posing the most dire threat to Mubarak in his three decades of authoritarian rule.
The government's attempts to suppress demonstrations appeared to be swiftly eroding support from the U.S. — suddenly forced to choose between its most important Arab ally and a democratic uprising demanding his ouster. Washington threatened to reduce a $1.5 billion program of foreign aid if Mubarak escalated the use of force.
The protesters were sure to be 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.
"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.
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.
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.
With looting and arson fires rocking the capital, Mubarak seemed faced with the choice between a deadly crackdown and major concessions to protesters demanding he step down this year and not hand power to his son, Gamal.
The 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."
Mubarak made no public appearance or statement and other senior figures in the regime were also notably absent.
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 U.S. 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 witnessed 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.
Junior lawmakers in the ruling party called in to national Egyptian TV calling on calm in the city.
The Obama administration appealed for Egyptian authorities to respect the rights of citizens and halt the crackdown on swelling anti-government protests. It again urged the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to bend toward demands for political and economic reform. The State Department urged Americans to defer any non-essential travel to Egypt.
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.
The White House praised ElBaradei and said the government's policy of keeping him under house arrest had to change.
A Facebook page run by protesters listed their demands. They want Mubarak to declare that neither he nor his son will stand for next presidential elections; dissolve the parliament holds new elections; end to emergency laws giving police extensive powers of arrest and detention; release all prisoners including protesters and those who have been in jail for years without charge or trial; and immediately fire the interior minister.
Mubarak has not said yet whether he will stand for another six-year term as president in elections this year. He has never appointed a deputy and is thought to be grooming his son Gamal to succeed him despite popular opposition. According to leaked U.S. memos, hereditary succession also does not meet with the approval of the powerful military.
Mubarak and his government have shown no hint of concessions to the protesters who want political reform and a solution to rampant poverty, unemployment and rising food prices.
Continuing the heavy-handed methods used by the security forces the past three days would probably buy the Mubarak regime a little time but could strengthen the resolve of the protesters and win them popular sympathy.
The alternative is to introduce a package of political and economic reforms that would end his party's monopoly on power and ensure that the economic liberalization policies engineered by his son and heir apparent Gamal over the past decade benefit the country's poor majority.
He could also lift the emergency laws in force since 1981, loosen restrictions on the formation of political parties and publicly state whether he will stand for another six-year term in elections this year.
Egypt's four primary Internet providers — Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt, Etisalat Misr — all stopped moving data in and out of the country at 12:34 a.m. Friday, according to a network security firm monitoring the traffic. Telecom experts said Egyptian authorities could have engineered the unprecedented cutoff with a simple change to the instructions for the companies' networking equipment.
The Internet appeared to remain cut off in Cairo but was restored in some smaller cities Friday morning. Cell-phone text and Blackberry Messenger services were all cut or operating sporadically in what appeared to be a move by authorities to disrupt the organization of demonstrations.
Authorities appear to have been disrupting social networking sites used as an organizing tool by protesters throughout the week. Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry Messenger have all seen interruptions.
Associated Press reporters Sarah El Deeb, Maggie Michael and Diaa Hadid contributed to this report.