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.
REVOLUTION IN THE AIR
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.”