Mubarak forces government to resign; Obama urges him to deliver on promises

By Griff Witte, Janine Zacharia and William Branigin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 28, 2011; 7:12 PM

CAIRO - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ordered his Cabinet ministers to resign early Saturday but also vowed to remain in power himself and backed his government's use of force to quell the massive protests that have challenged his 30-year rule.

Speaking on state television shortly after midnight, minutes before he spoke by telephone with President Obama, Mubarak lamented rioting and clashes with police Friday that led him to deploy military units on the streets of the capital.

"I take responsibility for the security of this country and the citizens," he said, adding that he would not allow fear and chaos to take hold in this nation of more than 80 million people.

He said he would give the new government "very specific goals" to improve the lives of the people.

About an hour later in Washington, Obama said he had just spoken to Mubarak and told him that "he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words" and deliver on his promise to address people's grievances.

"I want to be very clear in calling on the Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters," Obama said at the White House. "The people of Egypt have rights that are universal," including the right to assembly and free speech. "These are human rights, and the United States will stand up for them everywhere."

Obama also said demonstrators "have a responsibility to express themselves peacefully."

Mubarak spoke after military units deployed in the streets of Cairo and protesters attacked offices of the government and ruling party, with crowds of opposition demonstrators defying an overnight curfew.

In some parts of the capital, the protests appeared to grow more violent, and demonstrators looted and burned the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party, attempted to storm government buildings and attacked a police station. But in other parts, an apparently festive atmosphere prevailed, as demonstrators warmly greeted newly deployed army troops and urged them to join the protests. Unlike the police, the military did not appear to be battling the demonstrators.

By late night on Friday, police had largely abandoned the streets of the capital to the remaining bands of protesters.

By blaming the cabinet under Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif for the turmoil, Mubarak, 82, hoped to sidestep demands for his resignation after three decades of autocratic rule. He said he had asked the government to give the demonstrators the "space" they needed to voice their grievances and was "so sorry" to see protesters and police injured in clashes.

"There is a very thin line between freedom and chaos," he declared. "I am absolutely on the side of freedom for each citizen, and at the same time I am on the side of the security of Egypt. And I would not let anything dangerous happen that would threaten peace . . . and the future of the country."

Mubarak said he would not allow looting and arson, but he suggested that he would work toward "new steps for more democracy," more job opportunities and aid to the poor.

"We need to build on what we already have and to make a new future," he said. "What happened in the last few days puts fear in everybody's heart." He vowed to honor his "oath to protect Egypt."

In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the crisis "will be solved by the Egyptian people, but there is a very important opportunity for the Egyptian government to address . . . grievances that have been in place for a number of years."

Asked whether the United States stands by Mubarak, Gibbs said, "We are monitoring a very fluid situation."

Since 1979, Egypt has been the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, receiving an average of nearly $2 billion a year in economic and military assistance, according to the Congressional Research Service. The Obama administration sought more than $1.5 billion in aid for Egypt in fiscal 2011.

The deployment of troops and armored fighting vehicles came after heavily armed riot police battled thousands of protesters across Egypt in an effort to squelch a burgeoning pro-democracy movement that appeared to be gaining strength.

Crowds surged onto the streets of Cairo and other cities immediately after noon prayers, responding to a call for protests dubbed "Angry Friday." Toward sunset, the demonstrations seemed to grow larger, even as police fired guns, tear gas and water cannons.

The Egyptian government imposed an overnight curfew on Cairo, Alexandria and Suez starting at 6 p.m. (11 a.m. Eastern) and ending at 7 a.m., but the surging crowds did not heed it, appearing only to become more violent and intense. The curfew was later expanded to cover the entire nation.

State television said the military would work with police to enforce a ban on demonstrations, and military units deployed on the streets of this capital of about 18 million people. CNN showed one military armored fighting vehicle blocking a street with its gun turret pointing down the road. It was soon surrounded by a chanting crowd.

As reports circulated that Mubarak would appear on television around 6 p.m. to address the nation for the first time since the crisis began, riot police apparently pulled back from some of their positions.

Mubarak finally appeared on television just after midnight. There was no explanation for the delay.

Protesters, meanwhile, pressed forward and grew less organized and more violent than they had been in daylight. Demonstrators torched armored personnel carriers on some Cairo streets, and live video reports showed police security trucks careening wildly through the crowds. Gunshots and the firing of tear gas continued uninterrupted. It was not immediately clear whether the police were firing live ammunition or rubber bullets.

As the army's tan camouflage vehicles took the place of the black police vehicles in some areas, the crowds surrounded them, cheering and chanting as they urged the soldiers to join their cause.

Crowds attempted to gather at the Cairo headquarters of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, and fires were set, although it was not immediately clear what was burning. In the cities of Mansoura, north of Cairo, and Suez, east of the capital, party headquarters were ransacked by protesters, the Associated Press reported.

All over Cairo, including in upper-class neighborhoods, protesters scrawled anti-government graffiti on walls. "Down with Mubarak" was a common slogan.

In one neighborhood, teenagers walked around wearing police riot gear. It was not immediately clear where or how they obtained it.

Elsewhere, people went ahead with their daily activities. In one poor neighborhood, a family was getting ready for a wedding.

In the port city of Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city with a population of more than 4 million, military armored vehicles deployed in the streets after a day of protests. Like the army troops in Cairo, those in Alexandria received a warm welcome from demonstrators.

Speaking to reporters at the State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for restraint on both sides.

Clinton said: "We are deeply concerned about the use of violence by police and security forces against protesters, and we call on the Egyptian government to do everything in its power to restrain the security forces. At the same time, protesters should also refrain from violence and express themselves peacefully."

Clinton added: "We urge the Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful protests and to reverse the unprecedented steps it has taken to cut off communications," such as stopping Internet and social networking services.

"These protests underscore that there are deep grievances within Egyptian society, and the Egyptian government needs to understand that violence will not make these grievances go away," Clinton said. She urged the Mubarak government to "engage immediately with the Egyptian people in implementing needed economic, political and social reforms."

Clinton made it clear that her message also applied to other Middle Eastern governments. "The people of the Middle East, like people everywhere, are seeking a chance to contribute and to have a role in the decisions that will shape their lives," she said. "Leaders need to respond to these aspirations. And to help build that better future for all, they need to view civil society as their partner, not as a threat."

Separately, the State Department issued a travel alert for Egypt, urging Americans to "defer nonessential travel to Egypt at this time" and advising those already in the country to "defer nonessential movement and exercise caution." The alert also warned Americans to "avoid all demonstrations, as even peaceful ones can quickly become unruly and a foreigner could become a target of harassment or worse."

EgyptAir, the national airline, announced the suspension of flights from Cairo for 12 hours starting at 9 p.m., and a number of foreign airlines canceled flights into the city.

Earlier, on the 6th of October Bridge, which spans the Nile in the heart of this teeming capital, two protesters were shot by police and collapsed on the ground, unresponsive. They were loaded into a van that appeared headed for a nearby hospital.

But police stopped the van, pulled out the people accompanying those who had been shot and began beating them with wooden batons. The fate of those who were shot was not known.

Protesters clashed with police in Suez and Alexandria as well. In Suez, a port city that has been the site of some of the most intense confrontations this week, thousands of protesters overwhelmed riot police after a two-hour battle at a police station.

The protesters hurled what appeared to be gasoline bombs at armored personnel carriers, setting at least a half dozen of the vehicles on fire with the occupants inside. The protesters then freed the prisoners who were being held at the station. They began looting, carting off anything they could find in the police building, including weapons. Police fled.

Like previous demonstrations this week, Friday's rallies appeared to be primarily made up of secular, middle-class citizens demanding the end of the decades-long rule of President Mubarak. A government shutdown of Internet connections and cellphone service, intended to disrupt communication among the demonstrators, appeared to have little impact.

"This is no longer a time of fear. It's a time of change," said Mohammed Nabil, a 35-year-old doctor participating in his first protest. "We want Mubarak to leave and end 30 years of oppression."

Mohamed ElBaradei, a political reform advocate and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who returned to Egypt from abroad to participate, was placed under house arrest Friday, the Associated Press reported.

ElBaradei, the former chief of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, has said he wants to lead Egypt in a peaceful transition to democratic government. He could challenge Mubarak in the presidential election in September.

Across Cairo, as the sun set, clouds of tear gas hovered near virtually every minaret on the skyline, marking the spots where the demonstrations began. A roar of chanting and cheering rose from the crowds on the streets, accompanied by the near-constant wail of sirens and the staccato beat of gunfire and exploding tear gas canisters.

On the 6th of October bridge - so named to commemorate the 1973 Arab invasion of Israel that launched the Yom Kippur War - and on other spans over the Nile, protesters repeatedly surged forward from one end, only to be driven back by police surging from the other. The demonstrators were trying to converge on the centrally located Tahrir Square, where about 15,000 demonstrators protested Tuesday. But police continued to blockade it.

Live video showed seas of people swarming against row after row of helmeted police, who struck the protesters repeatedly with wooden batons. Clouds of tear gas and deluges from water cannons dispersed the masses momentarily. But the protesters soon converged again, chanting slogans.

Protesters called for the U.S. government to support their cause. Osama el-Ghazi Harb, a prominent Egyptian writer, held aloft an empty tear gas cannister that only minutes earlier had been fired at him and several hundred other protesters.

"I'm very sorry to say that it was made in the U.S.A.," Harb said. "The U.S. must condemn this use of force and, at the proper moment, tell Mubarak to get out."

The crowds shouted "Down, down, Hosni Mubarak" and stamped on posters of the president. Protesters waved Egyptian flags and occasionally threw stones, but for the most part remained peaceful.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, had largely been absent from the protests that have roiled the nation this week. But the group said it would fully participate in Friday's demonstrations, potentially drawing many more people to the streets.

The showdown Friday could be a crucial test of Mubarak's staying power. Egypt's Internet and cellphone shutdown appeared to be the most drastic move against anti-government activists' use of technology since the Iranian government cracked down on protests in 2009. Overnight, security services raided the homes of opposition leaders - including those of the Muslim Brotherhood - and arrested dozens.

Neither Mubarak, who has ruled here for 30 years, nor his son, Gamal, a possible successor, has appeared in public since the demonstrations began Tuesday.

But Safwat el-Sharif, secretary general of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, expressed sympathy for protesters' concerns Thursday and said the party was "ready for a dialogue" with youth activists, whom he applauded for expressing their views and described as "Egypt's future."

Nevertheless, Sharif discouraged demonstrators from gathering Friday. Egypt's Interior Ministry has banned all demonstrations and arrested hundreds, defying a call by the United States to allow peaceful protests.

"The minority does not force its will on the majority," Sharif told journalists as he spoke beneath a large photograph of Mubarak at his party's headquarters in Cairo a short walk from Tahrir Square.

Egypt's protesters have said they were inspired by Tunisia, where demonstrators ousted the country's president this month. But Sharif said Egypt would not "imitate" other countries.

This week's demonstrations have fed uncertainty about Mubarak's political future and Egyptian stability and wreaked havoc on the local stock market, which was halted for a half-hour on Thursday amid a steep slide in shares.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appealed on Friday for Egypt's leaders and its people not to let violence escalate.

"All concerned, people or leaders, should ensure that the situation in that region, particularly in Egypt should not lead to further violence," Ban said at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

Branigin reported from Washington. Correspondent Leila Fadel in Suez, special correspondent Sherine Bayoumi in Cairo and staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company