Cairo, Egypt: Mubarak Is Forced To Name Deputy As Protesters Defy Army & Curfew

29 Jan

 

Amro Eobaz
 AP – Amro Eobaz leads Egyptian protestors during a demonstration outside the White House in Washington, Friday, …
 

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt’s street protesters pushed President Hosni Mubarak into naming a deputy on Saturday for the first time in his 30 years in power, but many went on defying a curfew, urging the army to join them in forcing Mubarak to quit.

In making intelligence chief Omar Suleiman vice-president, many saw Mubarak edging toward an eventual, military-approved handover of power.

The 82-year-old former general has long kept his 80 million people guessing over succession plans that had, until this week, seemed to focus on grooming his own son.

The elevation of Suleiman, a key player in relations with Egypt’s key aid backer the United States, and the appointment of another military man, Ahmed Shafiq, as prime minister, pleased some Egyptians worried about a descent into chaos and looting.

But as top U.S. officials talked at length in the White House about events in the Arab power that is a linchpin of their strategy in the Middle East, demonstrators continued to flock after dark to the squares Cairo and other cities, ignoring a curfew and largely unmolested by troops on foot and in tanks.

“He is just like Mubarak, there is no change,” one protester said of Suleiman outside the Interior Ministry, where thousands were protesting. The last vice-president was Mubarak himself, before he succeeded the assassinated Anwar Sadat in 1981.

Another demonstrator said: “It is Mubarak who has to go.”

Later, police opened fire on a crowd hundreds strong at the ministry. A Reuters reporter saw one protester fall wounded.

“This is the Arab world’s Berlin moment,” said Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics. “The authoritarian wall has fallen, and that’s regardless of whether Mubarak survives.

“The barrier of fear has been removed. It is really the beginning of the end of the status quo in the region.”

The prospect of even greater upheaval across the Middle East — regardless whether it is the crowd or their rulers who get the upper hand — is prompting some investors to see risks for oil supplies that could in turn hamper global economic growth.

More immediately, Egypt’s vital tourist industry is taking a knock. In prosperous parts of Cairo, vigilantes guarded homes, shops and hotels from looters. Thieves at the Egyptian Museum damaged two mummies from the time of the pharaohs.

STATUS QUO

Of Suleiman, Cairo University politics professor Hassan Nafaa said: “This is a step in the right direction, but I am afraid it is a late step.” A senior figure in the military class that has run Egypt for six decades, Suleiman might, Nafaa said, be able to engineer a handover that would satisfy protesters.

“The street will not be convinced by Omar Suleiman at this moment,” Nafaa said. “Unless Omar Suleiman addresses the people and says there will be a new system and that Mubarak has handed power over to him and that the military is in control of the situation and has a program of a democratic transition.”

Jon Alterman at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies saw Suleiman as part of the status quo: “The appointment of Omar Suleiman is intended to send a message that if Hosni Mubarak leaves, the regime remains in place … It is not intended to mollify. It is intended to show resolve.”

Many saw Mubarak’s concessions — new faces and a promise of reform, as demanded on the streets and from Washington — as an echo of those made two weeks ago by Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. A day later, Ben Ali fled the country, deserted by an army which preferred to back less hated figures in his cabinet.

Tunisians’ Internet-fed uprising over economic hardship and political oppression has inspired growing masses of unemployed youth across the Arab world, leaving autocratic leaders worried.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent two hours on Saturday discussing Egypt at the White House. President Barack Obama spoke to Mubarak on Friday and said he urged him to make good on promises of democracy and economic reform.

Another big donor, Germany, warned Mubarak that European states would hold back cash if his forces crushed the protests.

ISLAMISTS

Mubarak, like other Arab leaders, has long portrayed himself as a bulwark against the West’s Islamist enemies. But Egypt’s banned opposition movement the Muslim Brotherhood has been only one element in the week’s events. It lays claim to moderation.

“A new era of freedom and democracy is dawning in the Middle East,” Kamel El-Helbawy, an influential cleric from the Brotherhood said from exile in London. “Islamists would not be able to rule Egypt alone. We should and would cooperate.

Until this week, officials had suggested Mubarak would run again in an election planned for September, which he would be guaranteed to win. If not him, many Egyptians believed, his son, Gamal, 47, could be lined up to run. This now seems impossible.

Suleiman, 74, has long been central in key policy areas, including the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, an issue vital to Egypt’s relationship with key aid donor the United States.

Protests continued throughout Saturday. In Cairo, soldiers repelled protesters who attacked a central government building.

Elsewhere, dozens of people approached a military cordon carrying a sign reading “Army and People Together.” Soldiers pulled back and let the group through: “There is a curfew,” one lieutenant said. “But the army isn’t going to shoot anyone.”

On the Corniche promenade alongside the River Nile in Cairo, people stayed out after the curfew deadline, standing by tanks and chatting with soldiers who took no action to disperse them.

Earlier on Saturday, several thousand people flocked to central Cairo’s Tahrir Square, waving Egyptian flags and pumping their arms in the air in unison. “The people demand the president be put on trial,” they chanted.

The scene contrasted with Friday, when police fired teargas and rubber bullets and protesters hurled stones in running battles. Government buildings, including the ruling party headquarters, were set alight by demonstrators.

THE ARMY’S MOMENT

While the police are generally feared as an instrument of repression, the army is seen as a national institution.

Rosemary Hollis, at London’s City University, said the army had to decide whether it stood with Mubarak or the people: “It’s one of those moments where as with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe they can come down to individual lieutenants and soldiers to decide whether they fire on the crowd or not.”

In Alexandria, police used teargas and live ammunition against demonstrators earlier on Saturday. Protests continued in the port city after curfew, witnesses said.

According to a Reuters tally, at least 74 people have been killed during the week. Medical sources said at least 1,030 people were injured in Cairo.

So far, the protest movement seems to have no clear leader or organization. Prominent activist Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Laureate for his work with the U.N. nuclear agency, returned to Egypt from Europe to join the protests. But many Egyptians feel he has not spent enough time in the country.

Banks will be shut on Sunday as “a precaution,” Central Bank Governor Hisham Ramez told Reuters. The stock market, whose benchmark index tumbled 16 percent in two days, will also be closed on Sunday. The Egyptian pound fell to six-year lows.

(Additional reporting by Dina Zayed, Marwa Awad, Shaimaa Fayed, Sherine El Madany, Yasmine Saleh, Alison Williams and Samia Nakhoul in Cairo, Alexander Dziadosz in Suez, Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Peter Apps, Angus MacSwan and William Maclean in London; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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