CAIRO, January 29, 2011 (AFP) – Embattled Hosni Mubarak tapped Egypt’s military intelligence chief as his first-ever vice president and named a new prime minister as tens of thousands took their deadly revolt to the streets on Saturday for a fifth day demanding that the president step down. Fresh riots erupted in several cities. In Cairo, three people were killed, and an enraged mob killed three police in the Sinai town of Rafah. That brought the death toll from the nationwide protests to at least 51 since Tuesday. As the violence raged, the president went into crisis talks with officials late in the afternoon, after which news broke that army career man and Mubarak confidante General Omar Suleiman had been sworn in as his deputy. Suleiman, 75, is chief of military intelligence and a well-known player on the world scene. He has spearheaded years of Egyptian efforts to encourage an eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and of mediating internal Palestinian disputes.
The government resigned on Saturday, a step Mubarak promised overnight. Shortly after Suleiman was sworn in, Mubarak tapped the current aviation minister, Ahmed Shafiq, to form a new government. Shafiq is respected by the Egyptian elite, even among the opposition, and has often been mooted as a potential successor to Mubarak. Along with the demonstrations, looting broke out in the capital after the widely hated police appeared to have faded from the scene, prompting the army to call on citizens to defend themselves. Tens of thousands of angry citizens streamed into central Cairo’s Tahrir Square, one of the focal points for street battles that have raged around Egypt, chanting: “Mubarak out!” as troops looked on. The army announced that a night-time curfew would be enforced and extended in key cities. However, as the new 4:00 pm to 8:00 am curfew went into effect on Saturday, tens of thousands in Cairo paid no heed.
Later, the army stood back as protesters fought running battles with police in front of the interior ministry. Hundreds of angry demonstrators threw Molotov cocktails at police near the epicentre of five days of protests, who responded with gunfire. Witnesses said police were firing live rounds, and medics said three people had been killed in the fighting in front of the ministry. As Mubarak stood his ground, influential Arab cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi called on him to quit, telling Al-Jazeera television he should “leave Egypt,” as the “only solution to the problem.” “Leave Mubarak. Have pity on the people and get lost before the destruction spreads in Egypt,” said Qaradawi, an Egyptian-born theologian and president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, who accused Mubarak of having become “deaf, dumb and blind.”
And the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the most well-organised opposition group in the country, called for a peaceful transfer of power through a transitional cabinet. Protesters have been demanding not only Mubarak’s departure but an end to endemic state corruption and police brutality that have become systematic under the president’s 30-year rule. However, steel magnate Ahmed Ezz, widely seen as a linchpin of a corrupt regime, resigned from the ruling National Democratic Party, where he was a senior member, state television reported. But one key thing people will be watching is whether widely hated Interior Minister Habib al-Adly, who has been in office since 1997 and who is responsible for the security apparatus, will keep his job. They have dismissed the 82-year-old’s vague promises of reform as too little, too late. The army, unlike the repressive police, is widely respected in Egypt, and its appearance on the streets was generally welcomed. Despite the curfew, shops and offices were looted overnight, and with a thin police presence, the army called “on the Egyptian people to protect the nation, Egypt, and themselves.” That appeared to be an admission that the troops, deployed by Mubarak on Thursday, are unable to control the situation on their own.
Earlier on Saturday, young Egyptians had already formed a human chain to protect the Cairo Museum, which is located in Tahrir Square and which houses the famous Tutankhamun mask and other priceless antiquities. And efforts were underway around the capital to organise neighbourhood watch committees. Elsewhere, clashes erupted in the key port city of Ismailiya, northeast of the capital, where thousands of workers fought running battles with police. In Alexandria, hundreds of people camped out by the main mosque in the centre of the Mediterranean city vowing to protest again, with several police stations still burning amid sporadic looting. As in Cairo, tanks were deployed and the police were absent. Civilians directed traffic and conducted clean-up efforts. Despite the ongoing protests, two Cairo mobile phone networks came back on line on Saturday, a day after all Egyptian operators were told to cut services. But Internet access appeared still to be cut by late afternoon.
US President Barack Obama called on the Egyptian authorities not to use violence against the political protests, driving home his message in a 30-minute phone call with Mubarak. He urged Mubarak to take “concrete” steps towards political reforms, saying he must turn “a moment of volatility” into “a moment of promise.” Later on Saturday, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley repeated concerns about the unrest. “With protesters still on the streets of Egypt, we remain concerned about the potential for violence and again urge restraint on all sides,” he wrote on Twitter. “The people of Egypt no longer accept the status quo. They are looking to their government for a meaningful process to foster real reform,” he wrote in a second message on the micro-blogging service. Washington has toughened its line on a key Middle Eastern ally, warning Egypt it would review billions of dollars in aid based on the behaviour of its security forces.
Egypt is one of the world’s largest recipients of US aid, receiving $1.3 billion annually in military assistance alone. The demonstrations, inspired by events in Tunisia, are the largest in Egypt in the three decades of Mubarak’s rule, sending shock waves across the region. At least 1,500 civilians and 1,000 police have been injured since Tuesday. Meanwhile, the outside world was reacting nervously to events in Egypt. Travel agencies postponed departures for popular tourist destination on Saturday, as capitals issued new warnings to their citizens to avoid visiting the country. On Saturday, the Saudi stock market, the Arab world’s largest, dropped 6.43 percent on the soaring tensions in Egypt. And the Cairo exchange, which was due due to start a new week of trading on Sunday after losing at least 10 percent this week, said it will remain closed for the day along with the nation’s banks.
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