Author: MAGGIE MICHAEL and HAMZA HENDAWI | AP
Monday 31 January 2011
In an apparent attempt to defuse the weeklong political upheaval, Mubarak named a new government Monday — dropping the interior minister, who is in charge of security forces and whom protesters have denounced for the brutality of police. But the lineup was greeted with scorn in Tahrir Square, the central Cairo plaza that has become the protests’ epicenter, with crowds of more than 10,000 chanting for Mubarak’s ouster.
“We don’t want life to go back to normal until Mubarak leaves,” said Israa Abdel-Fattah, a founder of the April 6 Group, a movement of young people pushing for democratic reform.
In what appeared to be a reaction to the call for escalated protests, a military spokesman appeared on state TV and warned against “any act that destabilizes security of the country.” But the spokesman, Ismail Etman, also underlined that the military “has not and will not use force against the public” and is “conscious of the legitimate demands by honorable citizens” — though he did not specify whether the military considers the demands for Mubarak’s removal legitimate or just calls for reform.
The mood in Tahrir — or Liberation — Square, surrounded by army tanks and barbed wire, was celebratory and determined as more protesters filtered in to join what has turned into a continual encampment despite a curfew, moved up an hour to 3 p.m. on its fourth day in effect. Some protesters played music, others distributed dates and other food to their colleagues or watched the latest news on TVs set up on sidewalks.
Young men climbed lampposts to hang Egyptian flags and signs proclaiming “Leave, Mubarak!” One poster featured Mubarak’s face plastered with a Hitler mustache, a sign of the deep resentment toward the 82-year-old leader they blame for widespread poverty, inflation and official indifference and brutality during his 30 years in power.
Looting that erupted over the weekend across the city of around 18 million eased — but Egyptians endured another day of the virtual halt to normal life that the crisis has caused. Trains stopped running Monday, raising the possibility authorities were trying to prevent residents of the provinces from joining protests in the capital.
Banks, schools and the stock market in Cairo were closed for the second working day, making cash tight. An unprecedented complete shutdown of the Internet was in its fourth day. Long lines formed outside bakeries as people tried to replenish their stores of bread.
Cairo’s international airport was a scene of chaos and confusion as thousands of foreigners sought to flee the unrest, and countries around the world scrambled to send in planes to fly their citizens out.
The official death toll from the crisis stood at 97, with thousands injured, but reports from witnesses across the country indicated the actual toll was far higher.
The White House said President Barack Obama called Britain, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia over the weekend in the US to convey his administration’s desire for restraint and an orderly transition to a more responsive government.
European Union foreign ministers urged a peaceful transition to democracy and warned against a takeover by religious militants.
Mubarak’s naming of a new Cabinet appeared to be aimed at showing the regime is willing to an extent to listen to the popular anger. The most significant change was the replacement of the interior minister, Habib el-Adly, who heads internal security forces and is widely despised by protesters for the brutality some officers have shown. A retired police general, Mahmoud Wagdi, will replace him.
Of the 29-member Cabinet, 14 were new faces, most of them not members of the ruling National Democratic Party. Among those purged were several of the prominent businessmen who held economic posts and have engineered the country’s economic liberalization policies the past decades. Many Egyptians resented the influence of millionaire politician-moguls, who were close allies of the president’s son, Gamal Mubarak, long thought to be the heir apparent.
Mubarak retained his long-serving defense minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
State newspapers on Monday published a sternly worded letter from Mubarak to his new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, ordering him to move swiftly to introduce political, legislative and constitutional reforms and pursue economic policies that will improve people’s lives.
But as news of the new government was heard in Tahrir Square, many of the protesters renewed chants of “We want the fall of this regime.” Mostafa el-Naggar, a member of the ElBaradei-backing Association for Change, said he recognized no decision Mubarak took after Jan. 25, the first day of Egyptian protests emboldened by Tunisians’ expulsion of their longtime president earlier in the month.
“This is a failed attempt,” said el-Naggar of the new government. “He is done with.” If Egypt’s opposition groups are able to truly coalesce, it could sustain and amplify the momentum of the week-old protests.
But unity is far from certain among the array of movements involved in the protests, with sometimes conflicting agendas — including students, online activists, grassroots organizers, old-school opposition politicians and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, along with everyday citizens drawn by the exhilaration of marching against the government.
It was not clear how much the groups that met Monday represent everyone. The gathering of around 30 representatives, meeting in the Cairo district of Dokki, agreed to work as a united coalition and supported a call for a million people to turn out for a march Tuesday, said Abu’l-Ela Madi , the spokesman of one of the participating groups, Al-Wasat, a moderate breakaway faction from the Muslim Brotherhood.
But they disagreed on other key points. The representatives decided to meet again Tuesday morning at the downtown Cairo headquarters of Wafd, the oldest legal opposition party, to finalize and announce a list of demands. They will also decide whether to make prominent reform advocate Mohamed ElBaradei spokesman for the protesters, Madi said.
Then, he said, they will march to Tahrir Square to demand the ouster of the 82-year-old Mubarak. The coalition also called for a general strike Monday, although much of Cairo remained shut down anyway, with government officers and private businesses closed.
The various protesters are united by little, however, except the demand that Mubarak go. Perhaps the most significant tensions among them is between young secular activists and the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to form an Islamist state in the Arab world’s largest nation. The more secular are deeply suspicious the Brotherhood aims to co-opt what they contend is a spontaneous, popular movement.
ElBaradei, a pro-democracy advocate and former head of the UN nuclear watchdog, invigorated anti-Mubarak feeling with his return to Egypt last year, but the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood remains Egypt’s largest opposition movement.
In a nod to the suspicions, Brotherhood figures insist they are not seeking a leadership role.
“We don’t want to harm this revolution,” Mohamed Mahdi Akef, a former leader of the group.
Still, Brotherhood members appeared to be joining the protest in greater numbers and more openly. During the first few days of protests, the crowd in Tahrir Square was composed of mostly young men in jeans and t-shirts. Today, many of the volunteers handing out food and water to protesters are men in long traditional dress with the trademark Brotherhood appearance — a closely cropped haircut and bushy beards.
A wave of looting, armed robbery and arson that erupted Friday night and Saturday — after police disappeared from the streets — appeared to ease as police reappeared in many districts. Neighborhood watch groups armed with clubs and machetes kept the peace in many districts overnight.
Still some incidents continued. One watch group fended off a band of robbers who tried to break in and steal antiquities from the warehouse of the famed Karnak Temple on the east bank of the Nile in the ancient southern city of Luxor. The locals clashed with the attackers who arrived at the temple carrying guns and knives in two cars around 3 a.m, and seized five of them, handing them over to the military, said neighborhood protection committee member Ezz el-Shafei.
In Cairo, soldiers detained about 50 men trying to break into the Egyptian National Museum in a fresh attempt to loot some of the country’s archaeological treasures, the military said.