MUBARAK’S GRIP TESTED

Leader ap­points long­time con­fi­dant as vice pres­i­dent

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY GRIFF WITTE

cairo — Ju­bi­lant pro-democ­racy demon­stra­tors and gun-tot­ing sol­diers rode to­gether atop tanks into this cap­i­tal city’s main square Satur­day in an ex­tra­or­di­nary show of sol­i­dar­ity, even as

Pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak took steps to en­gi­neer a pos­si­ble trans­fer of power to one of his clos­est con­fi­dants.

Af­ter four days of na­tion­wide bat­tles be­tween pro­test­ers and po­lice, the tens of thou­sands of Egyp­tians who have

taken to the streets to de­mand an end to Mubarak’s 29-year rule re­ceived an un­ex­pected en­dorse­ment when the mil­i­tary de­clined to block their lat­est rally. In­stead, sol­diers flashed peace signs and smiled ap­prov­ingly as demon­stra­tors chanted “Down with Mubarak!’’ When pro­test­ers at­tempted to mount one of the tanks, the troops in­vited more aboard, un­til an en­tire con­voy was cov­ered, lead­ing the crowd to cheer might­ily.

It re­mains to be seen whether Satur­day’s grand ges­tures re­flected a mil­i­tary en­dorse­ment of the pro­test­ers’ de­mand or were sim­ply an at­tempt by com­man­ders to defuse ten­sions and buy time for the au­to­cratic Mubarak to con­sol­i­date con­trol and put in a plan of suc­ces­sion.

Mubarak, 82, owes much of his author­ity to the mil­i­tary, and on Satur­day he made crit­i­cal ap­point­ments that could sig­nal his in­ten­tion to keep power within the se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment. Most crit­i­cally, Mubarak for the first time named a vice pres­i­dent — an ap­par­ent step to­ward set­ting up a suc­ces­sor other than his son Ga­mal, whom he had ap­peared to be groom­ing for the post.

But Mubarak’s pick, in­tel­li­gence chief Omar Suleiman, is widely de­spised among demon­stra­tors, who have de­manded the chance to choose their own pres­i­dent in na­tional elec­tions.

If Mubarak should re­sign and hand con­trol to Suleiman, it is un­likely that pro­test­ers would be ap­peased. Still, suc­cess in driv­ing Mubarak from of­fice would be a mon­u­men­tal achieve­ment for a move­ment that has spread spon­ta­neously across the nation since Tues­day as Egyp­tians who have long been ac­cus­tomed to qui­etly ac­cept­ing author­ity rise up in full-throated re­ac­tion.

Re­ver­ber­a­tions ex­tended across the Mid­dle East on Satur­day. King Ab­dul­lah of Saudi Ara­bia de­nounced Egypt’s protests for “in­cit­ing a ma­li­cious sedi­tion,’’ while in Jor­dan the leader of the pow­er­ful Mus­lim Broth­er­hood warned that the un­rest would spread across the re­gion to top­ple lead­ers al­lied with the United States. In Ye­men, a small antigov­ern­ment protest turned vi­o­lent as demon­stra­tors clashed with se­cu­rity

forces.

In Washington, a White House spokesman said Pres­i­dent Obama was re­ceiv­ing fre­quent up­dates from his na­tional se­cu­rity staff. The Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil con­vened a two-hour meet­ing to dis­cuss the sit­u­a­tion, and par­tic­i­pants in­cluded Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton and Vice Pres­i­dent Bi­den, the White House said.

Led by a se­ries of three stron­garmed rulers since 1952, Egypt has no ex­pe­ri­ence with gen­uine democ­racy, and it is un­clear who would tri­umph in a fair and free elec­tion. This week’s move­ment has had no vis­i­ble cen­tral lead­er­ship from any in­di­vid­ual or or­ga­ni­za­tion. While the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood is the nation’s largest op­po­si­tion party, an­a­lysts say it has the sup­port of only a mi­nor­ity of Egyp­tians.

Pro­test­ers this week have been no­tice­ably sec­u­lar, say­ing they do not want Is­lamic law im­posed af­ter years of liv­ing un­der Mubarak’s emer­gency rule, and the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood has played only a mar­ginal role in the demon­stra­tions.

Echoes in Mid­dle East

A suc­cess­ful demo­cratic move­ment in Egypt would prob­a­bly have far-reach­ing im­pli­ca­tions across the Mid­dle East, which is now dom­i­nated by un­elected au­to­crats but which has long taken its po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural cues from Cairo. Since Tu­nisians ousted their long­time dic­ta­tor this month, protests have sprung up across the Arab world.

In Tu­nisia, how­ever, democ­racy ad­vo­cates have said they be­lieve their revo­lu­tion is only par­tially com­plete, as many of the for­mer pres­i­dent’s loy­al­ists re­main in power.

Here, too, demon­stra­tors say they are seek­ing a to­tal break with a govern­ment that they charge has ruled this coun­try in­eptly and crim­i­nally, with eco­nomic ben­e­fits clus­tered in the hands of a cor­rupt and pow­er­ful elite while a ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion en­dures abysmally poor liv­ing con­di­tions.

“ The re­sources of this coun­try all go to a few busi­ness­men with con­nec­tions to the govern­ment, not to the peo­ple,’’ Farouk Hanafy, a 33-year-old en­gi­neer, said as he marched down the Cor­niche, this city’s grand prom­e­nade be­side the Nile. “We want jus­tice.’’

Hanafy cra­dled in his arms his 18-month-old daugh­ter. He said he brought her to the demon­stra­tions be­cause “for as long as I can re­mem­ber, I have known only one pres­i­dent. I want her to see some­one be­sides Mubarak. I want her to see that I change this so­ci­ety.’’

In pre­vi­ous days, bring­ing a child to one of this city’s pro-democ­racy ral­lies, which have spread to cities na­tion­wide, would have been reck­less. Po­lice have used tear gas, wa­ter can­nons and live bul­lets to dis­perse pro­test­ers, and on Satur­day au­thor­i­ties said at least 62 have died in the demon­stra­tions. It was not pos­si­ble to ver­ify the ca­su­al­ties.

But the po­lice pulled back Fri­day night as the army rolled in. With sol­diers un­der ap­par­ent or­ders to al­low the protests to pro­ceed, Satur­day’s demon­stra­tions were far more or­derly than on any pre­vi­ous day.

Loot­ing in Cairo

Still, with­out hin­drance from po­lice, loot­ers fanned out across the cap­i­tal and the well-to-do sub­urbs, smash­ing win­dows, steal­ing mer­chan­dise and set­ting fires. In some ar­eas, res­i­dents armed with clubs launched vigilante pa­trols. In down­town Cairo, shop­keep­ers said they would sleep in their stores to try to fend off would-be thieves.

“If they come to my store, I’ll shoot them,’’ Izz Mo­hammed, 54, said as he flashed a pis­tol and a fresh clip of am­mu­ni­tion un­der his suit jacket.

Late Satur­day, gun­shots and sirens were heard across the cap­i­tal.

Govern­ment au­thor­i­ties blamed pro­test­ers run amok for the break­down of law and or­der. But demon­stra­tors claimed that the rul­ing Na­tional Demo­cratic Party was send­ing plain­clothes loy­al­ists to sow an­ar­chy in a bid to dis­credit the bur­geon­ing democ­racy move­ment and to jus­tify what pro­test­ers fear would be a mer­ci­less crack­down.

“Mubarak wants chaos,’’ said Sayed Ab­del el-Hakim, a 30-yearold math teacher.

Pro­test­ers held aloft banners read­ing “Don’t burn Egypt,’’ and some bragged of hav­ing guarded the famed Egyp­tian Mu­seum from loot­ers un­til army com­man­dos ar­rived on the scene Fri­day night.

The mu­seum ap­peared un­scathed Satur­day, even as the wreck­age of the Na­tional Demo­cratic Party head­quar­ters — Mubarak’s po­lit­i­cal home — con­tin­ued to bil­low thick black smoke. Both build­ings face Tahrir Square, and they pro­vided the back­drop at dusk Satur­day as thou­sands of Egyp­tians streamed into Cairo’s cen­tral plaza.

The pro­test­ers filed past dozens of desert-beige tanks manned by troops in match­ing com­bat fa­tigues who at first ap­peared im­pas­sive but grad­u­ally broke into grins as the square rapidly filled.

Un­like the po­lice, who are hated here for their rep­u­ta­tion for de­mand­ing bribes, the army is pop­u­lar even among Egyp­tians who loathe Mubarak, the mil­i­tary’s long­time pa­tron.

When it be­came clear that the mil­i­tary had no in­ten­tion of en­forc­ing a pre­vi­ously an­nounced 4 p.m. cur­few, the pro­test­ers and the sol­diers re­laxed as both sides en­joyed a brief moment of har­mony af­ter a vi­o­lent and di­vi­sive week. Pro­test­ers tossed the troops or­anges, cig­a­rettes and bot­tles of wa­ter; the troops gave thumbs-up signs and left no doubt where their sym­pa­thies lie.

“We are with the peo­ple,’’ said Ahmed, a skinny 20-year-old sol­dier who would not give his last name.

When the sol­diers in­vited the pro­test­ers onto their tanks, the crowd of thou­sands whis­tled, honked horns and al­lowed them­selves to dream of a fu­ture for Egypt that just days ago looked unimag­in­able.

“ This is free­dom,’’ said Ab­del Nasser-Awad, a 40-year-old busi­ness­man. “Now we know Mubarak will leave. The only ques­tion is when.’’

BILL O'LEARY/THE WASHINGTON POST

Amal El­bahi, cen­ter, joins pro­test­ers dur­ing a rally in front of the Egyp­tian Em­bassy in­Wash­ing­ton. Demon­stra­tors marched from the em­bassy to the White­House.

LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

In sol­i­dar­ity with their coun­try­men at home, Egyp­tian im­mi­grants in Athens mount a protest out­side the Egyp­tian Em­bassy there.

KHALED DESOUKI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

Egyp­tian demon­stra­tors de­mand the ouster of Pres­i­den­tHos­niMubarak as they carry the body of a dead com­rade— wrapped in an Egyp­tian flag— dur­ing his fu­neral in Cairo.

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