By Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2011; 10:41 AM
CAIRO - Uniformed Egyptian police were back on the streets of this capital city Monday after disappearing over the weekend, as thousands of pro-democracy protesters showed no sign of obeying a midafternoon government-imposed curfew.
The police, who are widely detested here, have been blamed for triggering an almost complete breakdown of law and order in recent days across Egypt, a strategically vital nation at the heart of the Arab world. But with a measure of calm returning to the city Monday, many residents appeared pleased to have officers back on the job.
Still, it was unclear whether the calm would last, as thousands of protesters continued for a seventh day to call for President Hosni Mubarak's resignation.
Police officers, some brandishing rifles, took up positions in key intersections and along main thoroughfares. Security forces detained staff from Al Jazeera's English-language channel, and shut down the station's operations in Cairo.
The government ordered everyone off the street by 3 p.m. But as that hour came and went, the demonstrators continued to gather throughout the city and at the demonstration's epicenter, Tahrir Square. Protest organizers called for a general strike and much larger demonstrations on Tuesday.
The police tried and failed to put down pro-democracy demonstrations last week, and the army was mobilized Friday night. Since then, the army has not interfered with the protests and has not enforced the curfews.
That could change, however, with police back in the picture. State television announced on Monday afternoon that the Interior minister, who has control of the force, had been replaced.
Soldiers manned a cordon around Tahrir Square, and were turning back plainclothed police officers who attempted to enter. A military helicopter flew tight circles overhead.
Elsewhere in Cairo, there were long lines at gas stations and bakeries as residents coped with a shortage of bread and fuel. Egypt has been in a state of near-total crisis since last week, and that has disrupted supply lines. Many stores were shuttered across the city, with shopkeepers afraid to open for fear of falling victim to looters.
The U.S. Embassy began evacuating American citizens living in Egypt, diplomatic families and nonessential embassy personnel. Cairo's airport was in chaos. American college students on semester-abroad programs were among those trying to flee the country.
On Sunday, the military moved on multiple fronts to display its strength and consolidate support as factions within the government and on the street vied for control. The military sent conflicting signals about where its loyalties lie. On the streets, soldiers curried favor with demonstrators. But F-16 fighter jets streaked through the sky, and in images on state-run television, the nation's military brass appeared alongside the embattled president.
All across Egypt, troops in tanks fanned out to work with residents in chasing down marauding bands of knife-wielding thugs and to impose some semblance of order after the nearly complete disappearance of uniformed police.
Egyptians of all political persuasions accused the much-maligned police of being behind a campaign to terrorize the country - either by perpetrating the violence themselves or by standing aside and allowing it to occur.
As hatred toward the police grew, so did admiration for the army - which might be the intent of Egypt's security establishment as it struggles to find a way out of the crisis. The apparently contradictory signals from the army suggested that the question of who will rule Egypt remains very much in doubt, nearly a week after protesters turned this country's political universe upside down with a mass mobilization that appears to be growing stronger.
It was not immediately clear Monday how the reappearance of police on the streets would impact the situation.Attempts to organize
Opposition leaders gathered Sunday to try to organize their efforts, and they tentatively settled on pro-democracy activist and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei as their interim leader in any negotiations with the government. Baradei told reporters that he has the "popular and political support" necessary to begin the process of forming a unity government and that he would be seeking contact with the army to discuss a political transition.
But Baradei received only a lukewarm reception when he spoke later Sunday at Tahrir Square, the capital city's central plaza, and protesters said they would rather continue to operate as a diffuse people's movement than as an organized opposition. Thousands of protesters who marched peacefully under military protection vowed to stay in the square until Mubarak resigns from office.
At one point in the early afternoon, protesters and soldiers worked together to beat back two Interior Ministry vehicles that attempted to enter the site. An army commander then scaled his tank and announced to the crowd that the Interior Ministry had deployed thousands of armed men who were bent on sowing chaos in Egypt. The army, he said, "would stand with the people." The commander, dressed in camouflage battle fatigues, was cheered by the crowd and kissed on the cheek by demonstrators, who chanted, "The army and the people are one!"
That sentiment, however, was not matched by images broadcast on state television that featured the 82-year-old Mubarak alongside the military and intelligence chiefs, as well as the defense minister. In a possible indication of an ongoing power struggle, the interior minister did not appear to be present.
The army is believed to have the power to topple Mubarak if it chooses, but so far it has not done so, which might mean its gestures of solidarity with the protesters are meant only to placate the movement as the president engineers a succession plan. On Saturday, Mubarak announced that Omar Suleiman would be his vice president, making the intelligence chief the most likely possible heir to authority in a country where power typically passes from one strongman to the next.
Demonstrators are cautiously optimistic that the armed forces are on their side, but they also know that Mubarak is a former military officer who has enjoyed unbroken backing from the army for the nearly 30 years he has reigned.
Protesters on Sunday held aloft a banner reading, "The army must choose between Egypt and Mubarak." When in the late afternoon the air force dispatched the fighter jets to sweep low over Tahrir Square - their engines booming as they passed - the crowd's reaction reflected the confusion of the moment: Some protesters cheered what they saw as a show of support for their cause, while others cursed an attempt at intimidation.
Protesters have been resolute in insisting they will not accept Mubarak or any other member of the president's inner circle as their leader. The demonstrators, who proudly assert that they answer to no individual or organization, have demanded fair and free national elections to choose Egypt's president. Egyptians have never had such a choice, and a move toward democracy in this nation of 80 million would have deep reverberations across a region traditionally led by unelected autocrats.
Protesters on Sunday called on the United States to openly embrace their cause, with many saying they believed that Mubarak's ability to stay in office would hinge on whether he continues to enjoy backing from Washington.
"We want to be like America. We want to choose our president," said Mohammed el-Rady, a 32-year-old accountant who works for the government but was nonetheless on the streets protesting against the president. "This movement is not about Islam. It's not about religion. It's about people who have been suffering for 30 years who want democracy."
Rady, like many Egyptians interviewed Sunday, said he had seen police officers who had shed their uniforms engage in looting and vandalism overnight.
At the clothing retailer Benetton in one of Cairo's upscale shopping districts, Mustafa Abd el-Latif said he and fellow vigilantes nabbed a thief who had smashed the front window and was trying to get away with a bag of sweaters.
"We caught him and we were going to kill him, and then we saw his police ID," Latif said.
State-run television broadcast images of hundreds of what it described as looters who had been rounded up for arrest by the army Sunday.Prisoners freed from jail
But even as the army was making arrests, the police were apparently letting criminals go. At a jail outside Cairo, thousands of prisoners escaped after police abandoned their posts, according to multiple reports. Egyptians interviewed about the jailbreak said they believed the Interior Ministry had deliberately allowed the criminals to go free so that the police can later justify a vicious crackdown to restore order.
Late Sunday, state television announced that police would be back on the streets Monday and that a curfew that had been universally ignored since Friday would again come into effect.
Egypt remained very much a country in crisis Sunday, as families mourned the loss of the more than 100 people killed by police in clashes last week. Schools and the stock market were closed. Internet connections were down for a third consecutive day, and for the first time Egyptian authorities moved to shut down the operations of al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language broadcaster whose reports have stirred unease in regional capitals.
Late into the evening, rumors ran rampant.
At one point in Tahrir Square, a report circulated among the crowd that Mubarak had resigned the presidency and fled the country. Almost as one, thousands of people began to jump up and down in triumph, shouting, "He's gone!" Atop tanks, soldiers and protesters embraced.
But just as quickly as the news had spread, a second rumor emerged - this one apparently true: Mubarak was still the president.
The crowd quieted momentarily and then began to march again.
Correspondents Leila Fadel and Janine Zacharia and special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.