Egyptians spurn Mubarak speech, step up protest

CAIRO, (Reuters) – President Hosni Mubarak clung to  power today, replacing his cabinet in an effort to appease  angry Egyptians who demonstrated in their tens of thousands to  demand an end to his 30-year rule.
Mubarak ordered troops and tanks into the capital Cairo and  other cities overnight and imposed a curfew in an attempt to  quell protests that have shaken the Arab world’s most populous  nation, a key U.S. ally, to the core.
Despite dozens of deaths in Friday’s clashes, people turned  out in the streets today in defiance of security forces  and said they would carry on protesting until Mubarak quits.
“We are not demanding a change of cabinet, we want them all  to leave, Mubarak before anyone else,” said Saad Mohammed, a  45-year-old welder who was among about 2,000 people gathered in  Cairo’s central Tahrir Square.
The capital was strewn with wreckage from a day of protests  on Friday in which tens of thousands of people called for an end  to Mubarak’s reign, an unprecedented turn of events in the  tightly-controlled country.
Government buildings, including the ruling party  headquarters, still blazed this morning after being set  alight by demonstrators who defied the curfew to target symbols  of Mubarak’s rule.
According to a Reuters tally, at least 54 people were killed  on Friday, when protesters fought running battles with police  firing rubber bullets, teargas and wielding batons.
There was no official figure. Medical sources said at least  1,030 people were injured in Cairo, but with more protests  starting throughout the country, the number is bound to rise.
The demonstrators, many of them young urban poor and  students, complain of repression, corruption, and economic  despair under Mubarak, who has held power since the 1981  assassination of President Anwar Sadat by Islamist soldiers.
Mubarak promised to address their grievances in a television  address on Friday night. He sacked the cabinet but made clear he  intended to stay in power and he condemned the violence.
The cabinet was meeting today to formalise the move.
So far, the protest movement seems to have no clear leader  or organisation even if Mubarak did wish to open a dialogue.
Prominent activist Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Laureate  for his work with the U.N. nuclear agency, returned to Egypt  from Europe to join the protests. But many Egyptians feel he has  not spent enough time in the country.
The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist opposition group, has  also 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.
The deployment of army troops to back up the police showed  that Mubarak still has the support of the military, the  country’s most powerful force. But any change of sentiment among  the generals could seal his fate.
The armed forces told Egyptians on Saturday not to gather in  groups and to observe the curfew, or they would face “legal  procedures”.
Tanks were parked on roads leading into Tahrir square, which  was strewn with rubble, burned tyres and charred wood that had  been used as barricades overnight.
The number of protesters was far fewer than in previous days  but they were nonetheless defiant.
“This is unacceptable, Mubarak must step down. Public unrest  will not stop until this is achieved,” said Mohammed Essawy, a  26-year-old graduate student.
Protesters mocked Mubarak’s sacking of his cabinet as an  empty gesture.

Mahmoud Mohammed Imam, a 26-year-old taxi-driver, said: “All  he said were empty promises and lies. He appointed a new  government of thieves, one thief goes and one thief comes to  loot the country.”
“This is the revolution of the people who are hungry, this  is the revolution of the people who have no money against those  with a lot of money.”
The unrest, which follows the overthrow of Tunisian  strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali two weeks ago in a popular  uprising, has sent shock waves through the Middle East, where  other autocratic rulers may face similar challenges.
The final straw appeared to be the prospect of elections due  to be held in September. Until now few had doubted that Mubarak  would remain in control or bring in a successor in the shape of  his 47-year-old son Gamal.
It also poses a dilemma for the United States. Mubarak, 82,  has been a close ally of Washington and beneficiary of U.S. aid  for decades, justifying his autocratic rule in part by citing a  danger of Islamist militancy.
Egypt plays an important role in Middle East peacemaking and  was the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
U.S. President Barack Obama said he had spoken to Mubarak  shortly after his speech and urged him to make good on his  promises of reform.
“I want to be very clear in calling upon the Egyptian  authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful  protesters,” Obama said.
U.S. officials made clear that $1.5 billion in aid was at  stake.
Anthony Skinner of political risk consultancy Maplecroft  said Mubarak’s conduct was reminiscent of that of Tunisia’s Ben  Ali, who also fired his cabinet hours before he was forced to  flee.
“Mubarak is showing he is still there for now and he is  trying to deflect some of the force of the process away from  himself by sacking the cabinet. We will have to see how people  react but I don’t think it will be enough at all.”

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