Tanks close roads and fighter jets patrol over Cairo in show of force
CAIRO – Egypt’s powerful military stepped up its presence across the anarchic capital on Sunday, closing roads with tanks and sending F-16 fighter jets streaking over downtown in a show of force after a day of looting, armed robbery and anti-government protests.
The army made no attempt, however, to disperse some 5,000 protesters gathered at Tahrir Square, a plaza in the heart of downtown that protesters have occupied since Friday afternoon. Night after night, they have violated a curfew to call for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, which they blame for poverty, unemployment, widespread corruption and police brutality.
Nobel Peace laureate and democracy advocate Mohamed ElBaradei appeared in the square around 7 p.m.
“You are the owners of this revolution. You are the future,” he told the cheering crowd. “Our essential demand is the departure of the regime and the beginning of a new Egypt in which each Egyptian lives in virtue, freedom and dignity.”
The former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog left after his brief appearance, and some demonstrators dismissed him as an expatriate long removed from the country’s problems.
A spokesman for the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to establish an Islamist state in Egypt, told The Associated Press he was heading to Tahrir, or Liberation, Square to meet with other opposition leaders.
“You can call this a revolution, you can call this uprising, you can call it anything,” spokesman Essam el-Erian said.
The presence of overtly pious Muslims in the square was conspicuous, suggesting a significant Muslim Brotherhood representation. Hundreds performed the sunset prayers. Veiled women prayed separately.
On the first day of trading across the Mideast after a weekend of violent protests, nervous investors drove stocks down sharply, and crowds of foreigners filled Cairo International Airport, desperate and unable to leave.
Banks were closed on orders from Egypt’s Central Bank, and the country’s stock market was shut on what is normally the first day of the trading week.
Gangs of armed men attacked at least four jails across Egypt before dawn, helping to free hundreds of Muslim militants and thousands of other inmates. Gangs of young men with guns and large sticks smashed cars and robbed people in Cairo.
An unprecedented Internet cutoff remained in place for a third day after the country’s four primary Internet providers stopped moving data in and out of the country early Friday in an apparent move by authorities to disrupt the organization of demonstrations.
Police could be seen returning to some streets nearly two days after they virtually disappeared, creating a security vacuum only partially filled by the presence of army troops backed by tanks at key sites around this city of 18 million people.
The military has been generally welcomed by demonstrators across Cairo, unlike the widely despised police.
Egyptian mobile-phone networks were back up but with text-messaging widely disrupted. Because of its ability to reach many people with a single message, text messaging has been a tool of protesters across the world.
The official death toll from five days of growing crisis stood at 74, with thousands injured.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo told its citizens in Egypt to consider leaving the country as soon as possible, and said it had authorized the voluntary departure of dependents and non-emergency employees, a display of Washington’s escalating concern about the stability of its closest Arab ally.
Private tour groups and corporations began trying to evacuate their clients and expatriate employees. But dozens of flights were canceled and delayed.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appealed for an orderly transition to lasting democracy in Egypt, saying the U.S. expects that the protests will lead to free and fair elections.
“I want the Egyptian people to have a chance to chart a new future,” she said. “It’s not a question of who retains power … It’s how are we going to respond to the legitimate needs and grievances expressed by the Egyptian people.”
Israel’s prime minister told his Cabinet that he was “anxiously following” the crisis, saying in his first public comments on the situation that Israel’s three-decade-old peace agreement with Egypt must be preserved.
After a night of violence in many cities across Egypt, the army sent hundreds more troops and armored vehicles onto the streets starting Sunday morning.
State television showed Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi in green fatigues outside the state TV headquarters in downtown Cairo, speaking with soldiers and civilian onlookers.
Truckloads of hundreds of police poured back into Cairo neighborhoods Sunday afternoon and took up positions on the streets.
In some spots, they were jeered by residents who chanted anti-police slogans and demanded that they only be allowed to deploy jointly with the military.
In one part of Tahrir Square, soldiers working with civilian protester volunteers were even checking IDs and bags of people arriving at the square, saying they were searching for weapons and making sure plainclothes police did not enter the square.
“The army is protecting us, they won’t let police infiltrators sneak in!” one volunteer shouted.
Then, minutes before the start of a 4 p.m. curfew, at least two jets roared over the Nile and toward Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo, where thousands of protesters have gathered each day to demand the end of the administration.
The jets made several passes over the square, dropping lower every time and setting off alarms in parked cars.
Some protesters clapped and waved to them while others jeered.
“This is terrorism, they are trying to scare the people with the planes and the tanks. They are trying to make people afraid and leave the square,” said Gamal Ahmed, a 40-year-old air-conditioning technician.
Lines of army tanks jammed a road leading into Tahrir, and a military helicopter hovered overhead.
Massive trucks and cranes moved 3-foot-high (meter-high) concrete barriers in front of the foreign ministry in central Cairo near the Nile.
Troops in full combat gear and half a dozen armored personnel carriers guarded one of the largest symbols of the government.
Mubarak, 82, perpetuated the overriding role of military men in Egyptian politics by naming his intelligence chief, former army general Omar Suleiman, to the new role of vice president on Saturday. Ahmed Shafiq, the outgoing civil aviation minister and Mubarak fellow former air force officer, was named prime minister.
State TV Sunday showed images of Mubarak during what it said was a visit to the country’s military command center. The president looked somber and fatigued in his first public appearance since he addressed the nation late Friday to promise reform and annouce the dismissal of his Cabinet.
The brief footage appeared designed to project an image of normalcy.
Egyptian security officials said that overnight armed men fired at guards in gun battles that lasted hours at the four prisons including one northwest of Cairo that held hundreds of militants. The prisoners escaped after starting fires and clashing with guards.
Those who fled included 34 members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and best organized opposition group. The Muslim Brotherhood’s lawyer, Abdel-Monaem Abdel-Maqsoud, told The Associated Press the 34 were among scores rounded up by authorities ahead of the large anti-government demonstrations on Friday. The escapees included at least seven senior members of the group.
The security officials said several inmates were killed and wounded, but gave no specific figures. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to share the information with the media.
The officials told The Associated Press that army troops were hunting for the escaped prisoners, in some cases with the help of the police. State television also showed footage of what it said was dozens of prisoners recaptured by the army troops, squatting on dirt while soldiers kept watch over them.
In the southern city of Assiut, officials said riot police stormed the city’s main prison to quell a prison riot, using tear gas and batons against inmates. An Associated Press reporter saw army tanks were deployed outside the prison, on bridges straddling the Nile and at the police headquarters.
Thousands of Alexandrians met to pray in downtown Alexandria, a Mediterranean port city that is a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood. After prayers, the crowd marched towards the city’s old mosque to pray for the souls of those who died in the protests.
Egyptian mobile networks were back up after days of cutoffs but with text-messaging widely disrupted. Blackberry Messenger and mobile Internet services were operating sporadically.
The pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera said that Egyptian authorities ordered the closure of its Cairo news hub overseeing coverage of the country’s massive street protests, denouncing the move as an attempt to “stifle and repress” open reporting.
The Qatar-based network has given nearly round-the-clock coverage to the unprecedented uprising against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and had faced criticism by some government supporters and other Arab leaders as a forum to inspire more unrest.