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Cairo falls into near-anarchy

By Griff Witte
Saturday, January 29, 2011; A01

CAIRO - The Egyptian capital 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 determined to push President Hosni Mubarak from office.

By the end of the day-long battle, the protesters were still standing and the police were nowhere to be seen. Mubarak - who had not spoken publicly since the protests began Tuesday - made a televised speech after midnight, announcing that he had asked his cabinet to resign. The move fell far short of protesters' demands and seemed likely to ensure that the anti-government demonstrations that have erupted here would continue.

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

It remained unclear late Friday what role the Egyptian military might play. Mubarak, a former air force officer, draws much of his strength from the military, and any decision by the armed forces to withdraw support would mean the certain end of his rule.

But unlike the police, which unleashed an arsenal of weapons against the demonstrators, the military did not take any immediate action, and protesters gleefully welcomed the soldiers' arrival in a thundering of personnel carriers.

Protesters were honking their horns in celebration and roaming freely through central parts of the city late in the evening, in defiance of a strict curfew. The night air was thick with black smoke, and the sounds of explosions, gunshots, sirens, cries and occasional cheers echoed through the darkness.

The protests, which were launched in cities nationwide but were largest in Cairo, were the most serious in Egypt's modern history. Protesters have called for Mubarak, who at 82 has ruled this country with an iron fist for 30 years, to give up his position, leave the country and allow fresh elections.

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 this nation's autocratic president 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 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 ruling 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.

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 correspondent Sherine Bayoumi contributed to this report.

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