MUBARAK’S GRIP TESTED
Leader appoints longtime confidant as vice president
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
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.’’
Amal Elbahi, center, joins protesters during a rally in front of the Egyptian Embassy inWashington. Demonstrators marched from the embassy to the WhiteHouse.
In solidarity with their countrymen at home, Egyptian immigrants in Athens mount a protest outside the Egyptian Embassy there.
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.