Protests set to continue in Egypt

Uneasy calm prevails in Egyptian capital’s Tahrir Square while US “considers proposal” for Mubarak to go immediately

Protests demanding an end to Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule continue in the Egyptian capital in defiance of a curfew while the government denies organising violence against demonstrators.
The developments come as the New York Times reports, quoting US officials and Arab diplomats, that the US administration is discussing with Egyptian officials a proposal for Mubarak to resign immediately, turning over power to a transitional government headed by Omar Suleiman, the newly appointed vice-president, with the support of the Egyptian military.
The Egyptian president, for his part, says he has had enough and is ready to go but fears chaos if he resigns now.
Mubarak’s remarks, to an American TV network on Thursday, came as two days of clashes between protesters and his supporters on Cairo’s streets left at least 13 people dead and hundreds injured.
The protesters, who numbered some 10,000 in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square during the day, prepared to defy the curfew and sleep there before a big demonstration on Friday they are calling “day of departure” to mark last week’s bloody “day of wrath” protest.
Ahmed Shafiq, Egypt’s new prime minister, said the interior minister should not obstruct Friday’s peaceful marches. The interior ministry has denied it ordered its agents or officers to attack pro-democracy demonstrators.
Mubarak’s government has struggled to regain control of a nation angry about poverty, recession and political repression, inviting the Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt’s most organised opposition movement – to talks and apologising for Wednesday’s bloodshed in Cairo.
Street battles

The confrontation extended to Thursday in central Cairo where armed Mubarak loyalists fought pro-democracy demonstrators.
“I am fed up. After 62 years in public service, I have had enough. I want to go,” Mubarak, 82, who remains inside his heavily guarded palace in Cairo, said in the interview with ABC News.
“If I resign today, there will be chaos.”
Asked to comment on calls for him to resign, he said: “I don’t care what people say about me. Right now I care about my country.”

Mubarak blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for Wednesday’s violence and said his government was not responsible for it.

“I was very unhappy about yesterday. I do not want to see Egyptians fighting each other,” Mubarak told ABC.

But PJ Crowley, the US state department spokesman, said the US believes elements close to the Egyptian government or Mubarak’s ruling party were responsible.

“I don’t know that we have a sense of how far up the chain it went,” Crowley said.

In a move to try to calm the situation, Suleiman, the vice-president, said on Thursday the Muslim Brotherhood had been invited to meet the new government as part of a national dialogue with all parties.

An offer to talk to the banned but tolerated group would have been unthinkable before protests erupted on January 25, indicating the gains made by the pro-democracy movement since then.

But scenting victory, they have refused talks until Mubarak goes.

Protesters in Tahrir Square, dominated now by a youthful hard core including secular middle-class graduates and mostly poorer Muslim Brotherhood activists, barely listened, saying the concessions were too little and too late.

Opposition actors including Mohamed ElBaradei, the former UN nuclear watchdog head, and the Muslim Brotherhood said again that Mubarak, who wants to stay on until elections scheduled for September, must go before they would negotiate with the government.

“We demand that this regime is overthrown, and we demand the formation of a national unity government for all the factions,” the Muslim Brotherhood said in a statement broadcast by Al Jazeera.

The government’s overture came after Shafiq, the prime minister, apologised for Wednesday’s violence and the breakdown in law and order.

Shafiq also said he did not know who was responsible for the bloodshed, blamed by protesters on undercover police.

Meanwhile, the mobile operator Vodafone has complained about the use of the network by Egyptian authorities to send pro-government messages to the people.

In a statement on Thursday, Vodafone said: “These messages are not scripted by any of the mobile network operators and we do not have the ability to respond to the authorities on their content.”

Buffer zone

The army’s role in shaping events is crucial. Only on Thursday did soldiers set up a clear buffer zone around the square to separate factions after having stood by. That did not prevent new clashes as opposing groups pelted each other with rocks.

Doctors in makeshift hospitals at the scene said at least 10 people were dead and 800 wounded after armed men and stick-wielding Mubarak supporters attacked protesters on the streets. The UN estimates that number to be much higher.

Close to the Egyptian Museum, home to 7,000 years of civilisation, men fought with rocks, clubs and makeshift shields, as US-built tanks from the Egyptian army made intermittent efforts to intervene.

There were sporadic clashes throughout Thursday as the army fanned out to separate the two sides and allowed thousands more protesters to enter their camp in the square.

An Al Jazeera online producer in Cairo said: “The battle for downtown Cairo took on an almost medieval quality, with protesters erecting makeshift barricades and building homemade catapults to launch rocks at each other.”

 

He described the contrast between both sides’ tactics as striking. “The pro-democracy protesters organised themselves, building walls and seizing strategic locations; the pro-Mubarak crowd mostly advanced in a mob, hurling rocks and then retreating under return fire,” he said.

Later in the day, European leaders joined the US in urging their long-time Arab ally to start handing over power.

But the government, newly appointed in a reshuffle that failed to appease protesters, stood by Mubarak’s insistence that he will go but only when his fifth term ends in September.

Mubarak told the ABC News correspondent Christiane Amanpour he felt relief after saying he would not run for president again, and said he that he had never intended for his son Gamal to be president after him, as had been widely believed. Gamal was in the room during the interview.

The opposition has won increasingly vocal support from Mubarak’s long-time Western backers for a swifter handover of power.

“This process of transition must start now,” the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain said in a statement.

They all echoed the message from Barack Obama, the US president, that an orderly transition of power must start immediately.

Mubarak described Obama as a very good man, but when asked by ABC News if he felt that the US had betrayed him, he said he told the US president: “You don’t understand the Egyptian culture and what would happen if I step down now.”

Reporters targeted

There were several reports of foreign journalists being arrested or harassed. Dozens of them had their equipment confiscated.

Among the many detained were correspondents for the New York Times, Washington Post and Al Jazeera. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said late on Thursday that in just the past 24 hours, it had recorded 24 detentions of journalists, 21 assaults and five cases in which equipment was seized.

Angry men carjacked an ABC News crew and threatened to behead the journalists, but the crew managed to talk its way free, according to the network.

Al Jazeera said three of its journalists were detained by security forces, four were attacked and another was missing. It reported on Thursday night that the arrested journalists had been released.

Map: Demonstrations in the heart of Cairo

The channel, which the Egyptian authorities accuse of favouring the protesters, also said its equipment have been stolen and destroyed and its broadcast signal disrupted across the Arab world.

CPJ said on Wednesday that violence against journalists was part of a series of deliberate attacks and called on the Egyptian military to provide protection for reporters.

For her part, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, condemned “in the strongest terms” the pro-government mobs that beat, threatened and intimidated reporters in Cairo.

Attacks as well on peaceful demonstrators, human rights activists, foreigners and diplomats were “unacceptable under any circumstances”, she said.

“There is a clear responsibility by the Egyptian government, including the army, to protect those threatened and to hold accountable those responsible for these attacks,” Clinton said

Shahira Amin, a senior journalist at Nile Television, a government-owned network, walked out on Wednesday in anger that state TV was not broadcasting enough of the protests and clashes in Tahrir Square.

Though less numerous than earlier in the week, there were demonstrations on Thursday in Suez and Ismailia, industrial cities where inflation and unemployment have kindled the sort of dissent that hit Tunisia and which some believe could ripple in a domino effect across other Arab police states.

There were also protests in the port city of Alexandria.

Oil prices have climbed on fears the unrest could spread to affect Saudi Arabia or interfere with oil supplies from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal.

Brent crude rose above $103 a barrel on Thursday.

As the security situation in Cairo deteriorates, governments and companies are chartering evacuation flights. Between 10,000 and 13,000 passengers fled the city on Wednesday aboard around 95 flights.


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