President Hosni Mubarak, clinging on despite mass popular demands for an end to his 30-year rule, today met generals who may hold the keys to Egypt’s future, but in Cairo protesters defied a curfew.
As his key ally the United States called for an “orderly transition,” Mubarak’s disparate opponents, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, rallied behind retired international diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei to lead possible talks with the army on organising a handover of power to a national unity coalition. “I ask of you patience, change is coming in the next few days,” Baradei told thousands of demonstrators on Cairo’s Tahrir Square after dark. “You have taken back your rights and what we have begun, cannot go back.”
He added: “We have one main demand — the end of the regime and the beginning of a new stage, a new Egypt.”
“The people want the regime to fall!” thousands chanted as troops looked on patiently from their U.S.-built battle tanks. Baradei, 68, won a Nobel peace prize as head of the United Nations’ nuclear body. Though little known to many Egyptians, he had hoped to run in a presidential election in September. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Fox News: “We want to see an orderly transition so that no one fills a void. “We also don’t want to see some takeover that would lead not to democracy but to oppression and the end of the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”
For a week, since Egyptians inspired by the overthrow of the ageing strongman in Tunisia began a push for change, it has been unclear who might emerge as an alternative to Mubarak and, more widely, to the military class which has run Egypt since 1952.
A senior figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned Islamist group that has long seemed the strongest single force against Mubarak, said it backed ElBaradei as negotiator. The Brotherhood has stayed in the background although several of its senior officials have been rounded up. The government has accused it of planning to exploit the protests. Some of its leaders walked free from jails on Sunday.
As many as 10,000 people protested in Tahrir Square, a rallying point in the centre of Cairo, to express anger at poverty, repression, unemployment and corruption — themes that are rumbling across the Arab world after first Tunisia and now the most populous Arab state Egypt have been plunged in unrest. As the curfew started and was ignored, warplanes and helicopters flew over the square. By late afternoon more army trucks appeared in a show of military force but no one moved.
The turmoil, in which more than 100 people have died, has sent shock waves through the Middle East where other autocratic rulers may face similar challenges, and unsettled financial markets around the globe as well as Egypt’s allies in the West.
In Tunisia, the detonator of the regional movement, an exiled Islamist leader was welcomed home by thousands on Sunday. In Sudan, Egypt’s southern neighbour, police beat and arrested students taking part in anti-government protests in Khartoum.
For Egyptians, the final straw seems to have been parliamentary elections in November last year, which observers said authorities rigged to exclude the opposition and secure Mubarak’s ruling party a rubber-stamp parliament.
The military response to the crisis has been ambivalent. Troops now guard key buildings after police lost control of the streets, but have neglected to enforce a curfew, often fraternising with protesters rather than confronting them. It remains to be seen if the armed forces will keep Mubarak in power, or decide he is a liability to Egypt’s national interests, and their own. It was also unclear if Mubarak had decided to talk with the generals or if he was summoned by them.
It was Tunisian generals who persuaded former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee last month after weeks of protests. In Suez, on the canal, one senior local officer, Brigadier Atef Said said his troops would give protesters a free voice: “We will allow protests in the coming days,” he told Reuters. “Everyone has the right to voice their opinion. We’re listening and trying to help and satisfy all parties. We’re not here to stop anyone. These are our people.”
The crisis deepened during the day with Egyptians facing lawlessness on the streets with security forces and citizens trying to stop rampaging looters. Through the night, Cairo residents armed with clubs, chains and knives formed vigilante groups to guard neighbourhoods from marauders after the unpopular police force withdrew following the deadly clashes with protesters. As a result the army has deployed in bigger numbers across Egypt, easing some of the panic over law and order. In central Cairo, army check points were set up at some intersections. “The armed forces urged all citizens to abide by the curfew precisely and said it would deal with violators strictly and firmly,” state television issued a statement.
Residents expressed hope the army, revered in Egypt and less associated with daily repression than the police and security agencies, would restore order. Army tanks and tracked vehicles stood at the capital’s street corners, guarding banks as well as government offices including Interior Ministry headquarters. State security fought with protesters trying to attack the building on Saturday night.
In surreal scenes, soldiers from Mubarak’s army stood by tanks covered in anti-Mubarak graffiti: “Down with Mubarak. Down with the despot. Down with the traitor. Pharaoh out of Egypt.” Asked how they could let protesters scrawl anti-Mubarak slogans on their vehicles, one soldier said: “These are written by the people, it’s the views of the people.”
Egypt’s sprawling armed forces — the world’s 10th biggest and more than 468,000-strong — have been at the heart of power since army officers staged the 1952 overthrow of the king. It benefits from about $1.3 billion (£819 million) a year in U.S. military aid. Egypt’s military appears to be showing restraint and there is no talk at this time about halting U.S. aid to Egypt, Clinton told ABC on Sunday. Egyptian state television largely ignored protests until Friday, the biggest day when a curfew was announced. Since then it has given more coverage but has focussed on disorder and shown pictures of small protests, not the mass gatherings. The government has interfered with Internet access and mobile phone signals to try and disrupt demonstrators’ plans.
The tumult was affecting Egypt’s tourist industry and the United States and Turkey said they were offering evacuation flights for citizens anxious to leave. Other governments advised their citizens to leave Egypt or to avoid travelling there. The United States and European powers were busy reworking their Middle East policies, which have supported Mubarak, turning a blind eye to police brutality and corruption in return for a bulwark against first communism and now militant Islam.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was closely watching events in Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1979. It has served a key role in Israel-Palestinian peace talks.
“This is the Arab world’s Berlin moment,” said Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics, comparing the events to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “The authoritarian wall has fallen, and that’s regardless of whether Mubarak survives.”
Factbox – Egypt’s powerful military
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling apparatus has relied on the military since he came to power in 1981. All four Egyptian presidents since the 1950’s have come from the military, now led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. The army now guards key installations after police lost control of the streets, but it has neglected to enforce the curfew and has often fraternised with protesters rather than confront them. Here are some details of Egypt’s military which totals around 468,500 active personnel, plus a reserve of 479,000:
Numbers: 280,000 – 340,000 including conscripts.
Main Battle Tanks – 3,723, including 973 A1M1 Abrams tanks.
Reconnaissance vehicles – 410.
Armoured Infantry Fighting vehicles – 610.
Armoured personnel carriers – 4,160.
Artillery pieces 4,480 (including 492 self-propelled, 962 towed).
Mortars – 2,528.
Air Defence surface-to-air missiles – at least 2,100.
Tactical surface-to-surface missiles – over 42.
Numbers: 18,500 including conscripts.
Submarines – 4 tactical patrol submarines.
Surface combatants – 10
Patrol and coastal combatants – 41
* AIR FORCE:
Numbers: 30,000 including 10,000 conscripts.
Combat capable aircraft – 461. 165 fighter aircraft including 26 F-16A, 12 F16-B, 74 MiG-21F and 53 Mirage D/E.
Helicopters – 4 Commando electronic Intelligence
125 Electronic Attack helicopters
* OTHER FORCES:
There are also 150,000 Air Defence Command troops and 397,000 paramilitaries comprising Central Security Forces, National Guard and Border Guard forces.
Sources: Reuters/IISS Military Balance 2010.