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Egyptian troops let protests proceed as Mubarak names vice president

By Griff Witte
Saturday, January 29, 2011; 3:00 PM

CAIRO - Tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators swarmed central Cairo on Saturday in the largest demonstration yet against the rule of the country's longtime autocratic leader, President Hosni Mubarak. The crowd went unchallenged by troops, who, in extraordinary scenes unfolding around the capital's central Tahrir Square, smiled and shook hands with protesters and invited them up onto their tanks.

Meanwhile, Mubarak named a vice president for the first time since coming to power 30 years ago, a government spokesman said - an apparent step toward setting up a successor other than his son, Gamal, whom he had appeared to be grooming for the post, despite public opposition. Mubarak chose as his deputy his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, a close confidant who is well known to U.S. officials.

Even as protesters celebrated, word of Suleiman's appointment disappointed those who had expected wholesale change. "He is one of Hosni Mubarak's people, and we reject those people. The people should get to pick their leaders," said Mohammed Abdel Rahman, 25.

As a 4 p.m. curfew came and went Saturday, the square - which police had kept off-limits on Friday - was filled with people as far as the eye could see. The police seemed to have disappeared from the streets after vicious clashes the day before. The army had been hailed on the streets as a potential savior, with protesters giving soldiers thumbs up and openly imploring them to join their movement.

On Friday, the troops had appeared steadfastly neutral. Late Saturday, however, they were doing nothing to move demonstrators out of the streets, despite an earlier announcement by security services that anyone remaining in central squares or major roadways after 4 p.m. would face arrest.

Asked whether they would enforce the curfew, soldiers said they would not.

"We are with the people," said Ahmed, a 20-year-old conscript.

Soldiers accepted fruit, water and soda handed out by protesters in Tahrir Square and smiled as protesters chanted, "Go, Mubarak, go!" Children were hoisted up on tanks in the middle of the square to have their photos taken with troops as the hulking remains of the National Democratic Party headquarters building, home to Mubarak's ruling organization, burned in the background.

"These soldiers are Egyptians, too. They are suffering just like we are," said Khalid Ezz el-Din, a 50-year-old businessman who had come to the square to demand Mubarak step down.

Shortly afterward, a convoy of tanks rolled into the square, with as many as 20 protesters riding on each one. As the soldiers smiled and flashed peace signs, the protesters shouted "We are one!" and "Down with Mubarak!" Others held aloft a banner reading, "Game over, Mr. Mubarak."

"This is freedom," said Abdel Nasser Awad. "Now we know Mubarak will leave. The only question is when."

Ahmed Mahmoud, a 50 year-old purchasing manager, said that for the first time he felt proud to be an Egyptian.

"I always wanted to run away from my country," he said. "This moment is the first time I feel like a human being."

Earlier Saturday, there had been widespread looting in some neighborhoods of the capital - including the city's upscale shopping district and the well-to-do suburbs. Government authorities blamed protesters run amok. But demonstrators claimed the destruction was perpetrated by plainclothes employees of the National Democratic Party bent on sowing chaos to discredit the burgeoning pro-democracy campaign.

"We haven't even broken a lamp," said Mohammed Yahya, 23, a student protester. "All of this chaos is caused by the government, so they distort our image."

In addition to waving banners reading, "Down with Mubarak," protesters displayed new placards Saturday that read, "No looting."

Aside from the army, there were few signs of government presence in the streets Saturday, although scattered loyalists remained. On one busy downtown street, a Mubarak supporter dressed in a finely tailored suit attempted to wipe away anti-government graffiti that had been sprayed on the burned-out carcass of an armored personnel carrier.

The capital had descended into near-anarchy Friday night, as the government sent riot police, and then the army, to quell protests by tens of thousands of demonstrators.

News services, citing unnamed Egyptian officials, reported Saturday that the nationwide death toll after five days of protests had risen sharply since Friday to at least 62, including 10 policemen, with about 2,000 injured on both sides. The casualty figures were impossible to verify, however.

"We're not going to stop until Mubarak leaves Egypt. We won't accept anything less," said Dalia Fou-ad, 29, who said she had participated in this week's protests and would continue to do so.

Fou-ad and other demonstrators angrily dismissed as insufficient Mubarak's after-midnight speech Saturday. In the nationally televised address, the president - who had not spoken publicly since the protests began Tuesday - announced he would dismiss his cabinet, but gave no hint that he intends to yield to protesters' demand that he give up office. Egyptian state television said the cabinet officially resigned Saturday. Later in the day, Mubarak named Civil Aviation Minister Ahmed Shafiq the new prime minister.

President Obama said a short time after Mubarak's speech that he had talked with the Egyptian leader after he spoke and pressed him to make long-promised reforms. "What is needed are concrete steps to advance the rights of the Egyptian people," Obama said.

Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and top national security officials discussed the situation in Egypt for two hours Saturday, and Obama was to receive an update later in the day, the White House said.

Around the region, reaction to the protests varied. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah expressed support for Mubarak, according to the official Saudi Press Agency, which said the king had called the Egyptian president and quoted him as saying, "No Arab or Muslim can tolerate any meddling in the security and stability of Arab and Muslim Egypt by those who infiltrated the people in the name of freedom of expression, exploiting it to inject their destructive hatred."

In Iran, opposition leader Hossein Mousavi likened the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen to the protest movement that followed the 2009 disputed presidential election in his country and voiced hope that the protests engulfing Egypt might bring the kind of change that so far had evaded Iran, the Associated Press reported.

At the same time, though, Iran's hard-line leaders also tried to take credit for the uprisings, calling them a replay of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the pro-U.S. shah.

"An Islamic Middle East is taking shape," the AP quoted Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami as saying in his Friday prayers sermon. "A new Middle East is emerging based on Islam . . . based on religious democracy."

In the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, on Saturday, a couple of hundred protesters marched toward the Egyptian Embassy calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, the latest in a string of protests over the past two weeks. But Yemeni police blocked the boisterous crowd of human rights activists and students from approaching the embassy, and moments later, the protesters clashed with pro-government supporters as the police watched. The rally quickly dispersed, as the pro-government faction chanted its support for Saleh and paraded through the streets.

In Jordan, the leader of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood movement warned at a rally outside the Egyptian Embassy in Amman that the unrest in Egypt would spread across the Middle East and that Arabs would toppled their "tyrant" U.S.-allied leaders, the AP reported. Participants in the rally called on Mubarak to step down.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, citing the uncertain situation in Cairo, chartered a plane that brought home the families of its diplomats in the city, along with 37 other Israelis who had been in Egypt for business or as tourists. The Israeli ambassador and his staff remain in Cairo, but the embassy will not open Sunday, a ministry spokesman said.

Cellphone service was restored in Cairo on Saturday morning, 24 hours after a government-ordered communications blackout aimed at stopping Friday's protests. Internet access remained blocked.

Smoke billowed Saturday from the remains of the National Democratic Party headquarters. The building - a prominent symbol of 82-year-old Mubarak's 30-year rule - was reduced to little more than a smoldering mound of concrete.

Success in ousting Mubarak would be a remarkable achievement for a group of demonstrators who have no charismatic leaders, little organization and few clear objectives beyond removing Mubarak and other members of his ruling clique.

Before this week, few thought a mass anti-government movement was possible in Egypt, a country that has little experience with democracy. But after Friday's protests, the campaign to oust Mubarak only seems to be gathering strength.

Egyptian demonstrators are hoping to replicate the success of pro-democracy advocates in Tunisia, who this month ousted their autocratic president and sparked a wave of imitators across the region. Because Egypt has long been seen as the political center of the Arab world, the end of Mubarak's rule would reverberate particularly deeply.

The government had worked assiduously to keep the protests from even happening. It took extraordinary measures to block communications, cutting all Internet connections and mobile phone networks. Overnight Thursday, dozens of opposition leaders were rounded up and arrested. At dawn Friday, thousands of riot police filled the streets of Cairo.

Mohamed ElBaradei, a political reform advocate and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who returned to Egypt from abroad to participate, was soaked with a water cannon and later placed under house arrest, the Associated Press reported. ElBaradei, the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has said he wants to lead Egypt in a peaceful transition to democratic government.

The protests were launched after Friday midday prayers. They started small, with police moving in immediately to try to suppress them. But the gatherings soon swelled, and the police tactics escalated. Throughout the afternoon and evening, security services fired hundreds of tear gas shells, shot unarmed protesters and beat them with clubs. Despite those efforts, the protesters continued to surge toward downtown Cairo and, after dark, began setting fire to police vehicles and government buildings, as well as the headquarters of the National Democratic Party.

Until then, the protesters had largely refrained from initiating violence, choosing instead to chant slogans and wave the Egyptian flag. When tear gas canisters sailed toward them, protesters swooped in and tried to either throw them back or to cast them into the waters of the Nile.

Protesters vowed to continue their demonstrations until Mubarak leaves office. "This is no longer a time of fear. It's a time of change," said Mohammed Nabil, a 35-year-old doctor who, like many, said he was participating in his first protest. "We want Mubarak to leave and end 30 years of oppression."

Despite calls by Egypt's main opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, for members to join the movement, this week's protests have been decidedly secular. Demonstrators, most of whom appear to be members of the nation's middle class, said their campaign has little to do with religion.

"We need a just government. It doesn't matter whether it's Islamic or secular. The issue is justice," said Mustafa Reda, a 22-year-old whose eyes were bloodshot and throat raw from choking on tear gas.

Reda said he took to the streets only after friends were killed earlier in the week in demonstrations in the northeastern city of Suez. Protests there, in Alexandria and in cities across Egypt continued Friday.

It was unclear how many protesters were killed or injured during Friday's mayhem. At one point in Cairo, an armored personnel carrier steered directly into a swarm of demonstrators. A police officer firing from a hatch in the roof shot at least two men. When fellow protesters tried to drive the wounded men away, police stopped their vehicle, forced all able-bodied occupants out and relentlessly beat them in the middle of the street.

Throughout the afternoon, protesters and police waged pitched battles from either side of three majestic bridges that span the Nile. Police would send tear gas canisters soaring from one end of the bridge to the other and temporarily force the protesters to flee. But each time, the protesters surged back, and just after dusk, they forced the police into a full retreat across one of the spans.

In addition to calling for the ouster of the president, protesters also demanded that the U.S. government support their cause. Osama el-Ghazi Harb, a prominent Egyptian writer, held aloft an empty teargas canister 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."

Many journalists who attempted to report on the demonstrations were attacked by plainclothes security officers who smashed cameras and bloodied the face of at least one BBC reporter. The journalist later went on the air to report the assault.

Many of those injured in the protests said they would not go to hospitals for fear of being arrested, and instead went home or simply stayed in the street.

The ranks of the protesters included a significant number of government employees, who used their day off from work to call for their president to go. "All the Egyptian people are oppressed, and their time has come. Enough is enough," said a man who identified himself as a diplomat with the nation's Foreign Ministry but would give only his first name, Ahmed. "I know Egyptians, and they will not stop until Mubarak is gone."

Special correspondents Sherine Bayoumi in Cairo and Joel Greenberg in Jerusalem and correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.

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