Fear of anarchy and looting lingered in Egypt today, with many streets in the nation’s capital left without security after police stopped patrolling. “It seems that every major square and every small street in Cairo was basically taken over by communities … people are parading the streets, walking around with baseball bats and knives,” said Ahmed Rehab of the Council on American Islamic Relations from Cairo. “We didn’t get any sleep all night.”
As President Hosni Mubarak clung to power and tried to redeem his 30-year rule, the world’s attention fell on central Cairo, where the army was deployed to replace police forces that clashed brutally with demonstrators.
Tanks and troops continued to stand guard in the streets Sunday morning, but it was unclear how large protests would be.
The powerful Egyptian army, deployed to the streets for the first time since the mid-1980s, is much more respected than the police, and many protesters have embraced their presence. But whether the 450,000-strong armed forces will remain loyal to Mubarak is key for the nation’s future.
State-run Nile TV reported that the military issued a stern warning to the people on Saturday: “Stop the looting, chaos and the things that hurt Egypt. Protect the nation, protect Egypt, protect yourselves.”
Still, shops and businesses were looted and abandoned police stations stripped clean of their arsenals.
Roughly 1,000 inmates escaped from Prison Demu in Fayoum, southwest of Cairo, state-run Nile TV reported early Sunday.
Residents calling in to a program on Nile TV complained about the absence of security. Anchors responded by reassuring callers that the army was protecting the streets.
“Those thugs are setting things on fire. … They are setting fire in front of the hospital,” a caller identifying herself as a doctor in a Cairo neighborhood said.
One anchor replied, “This might be a security check from your colleagues or the workers who are there.” Another anchor told her to remain calm.
After days of silence, the embattled Mubarak acted swiftly Saturday. He fired his entire Cabinet, then tapped two new leaders to stand by his side.
Mubarak appointed his trusted and powerful intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, as his deputy, the first time the authoritarian regime has seen such a post. Suleiman is well respected by the military and is credited with crushing an Islamic insurgency in the 1990s, for which he earned the ear of Western intelligence officials thirsting for vital information about regional terrorist groups.
Mubarak also asked Ahmed Shafik, the civil aviation minister in the cabinet that just stepped down, to form a new government, state-run Nile TV reported. Shafik is a former Air Force officer with strong military connections.
But Egyptians fed up with with what they see as Mubarak’s hollow promises for reform were hardly appeased. In a fifth day of protests engulfing the Arab world’s most populous nation, people took to the streets Saturday, chanting “Down with Mubarak” and burning pictures of the authoritarian leader.
Anti-government demonstrators have protested since Tuesday. The protests come weeks after similar disturbances sparked a revolution in Tunisia, forcing then-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country.
Both Egypt and Tunisia have seen dramatic rises in the cost of living in recent years and accusations of corruption among the ruling elite.
Tunisia-inspired demonstrations have also taken place in Algeria, Yemen and Jordan.
The demonstrations across the country Saturday were boisterous but largely peaceful. One exception was near the cordoned-off interior ministry in Cairo, where police shot live ammunition and burning tear gas as protesters rumbled towards the building — an Alamo of sorts for the police and an outpost that stood as a highly visible and potent symbol of state authority.
At least one person was killed, Dr. Ragab Ali said at the Ebad Al-Rahman Clinic, a medical center near the ministry, though another doctor treating the wounded said at least five people had been shot to death.
The clashes injured at least 60 people, Ali said.
There was confusion about the human toll in the demonstrations thus far.
Several officials were killed at Prison Demu as inmates escaped — at least one after being fired on by prisoners — Nile TV reported Sunday, though it did not say how many died.
At least 31 people were killed in the city of Alexandria, hospital authorities told CNN.
Earlier, the state-run Nile TV earlier reported 38 people died. It was unclear whether the Alexandria deaths were part of that toll.
The Egyptian crisis reverberated across the world, with activists in cities including New York, Toronto and Geneva staging protests Saturday in support of those in Egypt and demanded that Mubarak step down.
The international outcry followed a brutal crackdown Friday when thousands of riot and plainclothes police clashed violently with the protesters, firing water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas with force and impunity.
Undeterred, people ran, screamed, hurled rocks and accosted walls of security as they tried to make their way to central Cairo.
Mubarak, 82, who has not been seen in public for some time, addressed the nation in a televised speech early Saturday. He said he asked his government to step down but he intended to stay in power.
“These protests arose to express a legitimate demand for more democracy, need for a greater social safety net, and the improvement of living standards, fighting poverty and rampant corruption,” Mubarak said.
The aging president has ruled Egypt with an iron fist for three decades, and it was widely believed he was grooming his son, Gamal, as his successor — a plan now complicated by demands for democracy.
“I understand these legitimate demands of the people and I truly understand the depth of their worries and burdens, and I will not part from them ever and I will work for them every day,” he said. “But regardless of what problems we face, this does not justify violence or lawlessness.”