Archive for January, 2011

January 31, 2011

Egypt Rebels Form New Parliament

Change is happening from the ground up in Egypt, as a group of anti-Mubarak protesters declared Sunday to be the first official session of the People’s Popular Parliament. The committee, formed to negotiate the people’s demands with the state, includes Nobel laureate and opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei as well as a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, says Ayman Nour, another opposition politician. National columnist Sultan Al Qassemi tweeted Sunday, “Today was the first session of the People’s Popular Parliament.”

Posted at 4:11 PM, Jan 30, 2011

A special programme looking at Egypt under Hosni Mubarak.

A Nation in Waiting

January 31, 2011

Egypt Protests Show American Foreign-Policy Folly

While popular uprisings erupt across the Middle East, America stands on the sidelines. Stephen Kinzer on why the U.S. should abandon its self-defeating strategy in the region.

From left: AFP-Getty Images; Thaer Ganaim / PPO-Getty Images; Sean Gallup / Getty Images Leading figures in U.S.–Mideast policy (from left): Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.


Cached: http://www.newsweek.com/2011/01/30/inside-the-white-house-s-egypt-scramble.html

by Stephen KinzerJanuary 28, 2011

One afternoon a couple of weeks ago, I walked into the British Foreign Office for a meeting with Middle East policy planners. “Tunisia is melting down and the Lebanese government has just fallen,” my host said as he welcomed me. “Interesting times.”

During our meeting, one veteran British diplomat observed that since American policy toward the Middle East is frozen into immobility, change there comes only when there is a crisis. I asked where he thought the next crisis might erupt. “Egypt,” he replied.

Events have moved quickly since then President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia has been overthrown, Hezbollah has chosen the new prime minister of Lebanon and thousands have taken to the streets in Egypt to demand an end to Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship. The Middle East is erupting—and the U.S. is watching from the sidelines. Unable to guide the course of events, it can do little more than cheer for its sclerotic allies and hope that popular anger does not sweep them aside.


Washington sees the various local and national conflicts in the Middle East as part of a battle for regional hegemony between the U.S. and Iran. If this is true, the U.S. is losing. That is because it has stubbornly held onto Middle East policies that were shaped for the Cold War. The security environment in the region has changed dramatically since then. Iran has shown itself agile enough to align itself with rising new forces that enjoy the support of millions. The U.S., meanwhile, remains allied with countries and forces that looked strong 30 or 40 years ago but no longer are.

Iran is betting on Hizbullah, Hamas, and Shiite parties in Iraq. These are popular forces that win elections. Hizbullah emerged as the heroic champion of resistance to Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, winning the admiration of Arabs, not only for itself but also for its Iranian backers. Many Arabs also admire Hamas for its refusal to bow to Israeli power in Gaza.

Pro-Iran forces have also scored major gains in Iraq. They effectively control the Iraqi government, and their most incendiary leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, recently returned to a hero’s welcome after an extended stay in Iran. By invading Iraq in 2003, and removing Saddam Hussein from power, the U.S. handed Iraq to Iran on a platter. Now Iran is completing the consolidation of its position in Baghdad.

Whom does America bet on to counter these rising forces? The same friends it has been betting on for decades: Mubarak’s pharaonic regime in Egypt, Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, the Saudi monarchy, and increasingly radical politicians in Israel. It is no wonder that Iran’s power is rising as the American-imposed order begins to crumble.

The U.S. keeps Mubarak in power—it gave his regime $1.5 billion in aid last year—mainly because he supports America’s pro-Israel policies, especially by helping Israel maintain its stranglehold on Gaza. It supports Abbas for the same reason: he is seen as willing to compromise with Israel, and therefore a desirable negotiating partner. This was confirmed, to Abbas’s great embarrassment, by WikiLeaks cables that show how eager he has been to meet Israeli demands, even collaborating with Israeli security forces to arrest Palestinians he dislikes. American support for Mubarak and Abbas continues, although neither man is in power with any figment of legality; Mubarak brazenly stage-manages elections, and Abbas has ruled by decree since his term of office expired in 2009.

Intimacy with the Saudi royal family is another old habit the U.S. cannot seem to kick—even though American leaders know full well, as one of the WikiLeaks cables confirms, that “Saudi donors remain the chief financiers of Sunni militant groups like al-Qaeda.” The fact that the Tunisian leader fled to Saudi Arabia after being overthrown shows how fully the Saudis support the old, eroding Middle East order.

As for Israel itself, it will lose much if new Arab leaders emerge who refuse to be their silent partners. Yet Israel clings to the belief that it will be able to guarantee its long-term security with weapons alone. The U.S. encourages it in this view, sending Israelis the message that no matter how militant their rejectionist policies become, they can count on Washington’s endless support.

The U.S. has long sought to block democracy in the Arab world, fearing that it would lead to the emergence of Islamist regimes. Remarkably, however, the Tunisian revolution does not seem to be heading that way, nor have Islamist leaders tried to guide protests in Egypt. Perhaps watching the intensifying repression imposed by mullahs in Iran has led many Muslims to rethink the value of propelling clerics to power.

Even if democratic regimes in the Middle East are not fundamentalist, however, they will firmly oppose U.S. policy toward Israel. The intimate U.S.-Israel relationship guarantees that many Muslims around the world will continue to see the U.S. as an enabler of evil. Despite America’s sins in the Middle East, however, many Muslims still admire the U.S. They see its leaders as profoundly mistaken in their unconditional support of Israel, but envy what the U.S. has accomplished and want some version of American freedom and prosperity for themselves. This suggests that it is not too late for the U.S. to reset its policy toward the region in ways that would take new realities into account.

Accepting that Arabs have the right to elect their own leaders means accepting the rise of governments that do not share America’s pro-Israel militancy. This is the dilemma Washington now faces. Never has it been clearer that the U.S. needs to reassess its long-term Middle East strategy. It needs new approaches and new partners. Listening more closely to Turkey, the closest U.S. ally in the Muslim Middle East, would be a good start. A wise second step would be a reversal of policy toward Iran, from confrontation to a genuine search for compromise. Yet pathologies in American politics, fed by emotions that prevent cool assessment of national interest, continue to paralyze the U.S. diplomatic imagination. Even this month’s eruptions may not be enough to rouse Washington from its self-defeating slumber.

January 31, 2011

Obama’s Risky Path in Egypt

Cached:  http://www.newsweek.com/2011/01/30/obama-s-risky-path-in-egypt.html

EGYPT

by Leslie H. Gelb, January 30, 2011

Obama administration officials say they are not taking sides between President Hosni Mubarak, America’s key ally in the Arab world, and the street protesters who purportedly represent a path to democracy in authoritarian Egypt. These officials might even believe what they’re saying. But the very assertion of “not taking sides” is itself a tilt away from the all-out support traditionally given by Washington to this Egyptian strongman in recent decades.

The administration’s move is a slide toward the unknown. Senior officials have no idea of exactly who these street protesters are, whether the protesters are simply a mob force incapable of organized political action and rule, or if more sinister groups hover in the shadows, waiting to grab power and turn Egypt into an anti-Western, anti-Israeli bastion. The White House has called upon its intelligence agents and diplomats to provide answers, but only best guesses are forthcoming. No one, no matter how well informed about Egypt, can divine what will happen to power within Egypt if the protesters compel concessions from the Mubarak regime or, on the other hand, if Mubarak hangs onto power by using brutal force.

So, some administration officials are thinking that for all the risks of losing a good ally in Mubarak, it might well be better to get “on the right side of history.” Some U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers have long harbored the view that corrupt, inept, and inefficient Arab friends simply cannot retain power forever. They believe President Carter should have trusted his initial instincts and pushed the Shah of Iran toward reforms. In this way, the shah might have become viable, or failing that, Washington could have allied with moderates who might have succeeded him.

But those officials who think this way forget their history. When President George W. Bush made his push for democracy in Arab lands, he ended up with Hamas terrorists winning a democratic election and ruling the Gaza Strip. And this “democratic” thinking also overlooks that Bush’s pressing for democracy in Lebanon helped open the doors to power for the radical Hezbollah group. And yes, the anti-shah revolution in 1979 started out with moderates in power, only to be pushed aside by the clerical radicals who still rule today. In rotten regimes that fall to street mobs, the historical pattern has been moderates followed by new dictators. Just remember the model of the Bolsheviks, a tiny group of extremely well-organized communists, wresting control away from the great majority of discontented and disorganized Russians in 1917.

Judge for yourself whether the Obama team is leaning toward the protesters. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs reiterated that Egypt remains “a strong ally,” but then stressed support for the “universal rights” of the Egyptian people. “This isn’t about support or opposition to leaders,” he said, “it’s about support for universal rights of assembly and expression. We criticize actions that restrict those values,” Gibbs told ABC News.

Also on Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters: “We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. And we urge the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media sites.” She continued: “We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time, to implement political, economic, and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”

In sum, she and the administration are saying to Mubarak: Don’t use brute power and force to stop the protesters, and don’t interfere with the protesters doing their protesting. This message is flat contrary to the position of the Mubarak government, which has outlawed such protests and appears to be blocking Twitter, Facebook, and other social media tools. In other words, the Obama team is urging conciliation and, de facto, concessions to those who may well end up advocating far more than simple political and economic reforms.

The stakes are sky high. Egypt is the linchpin to peace in the Middle East. So long as Egypt refrains from warring against Israel, other Arab states cannot take military action by themselves. So long as Cairo remains pro-Western, it serves as an anchor for other such friendly governments. It occupies a central economic position in the region and a vital transportation hub through the Suez Canal. Most certainly, most Arab governments friendly to Washington need to make reforms. But to do so at a moment of weakness, to be seen as bending to mobs, however peaceful and moderate they look now, could open up the floodgates—in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere.

The overriding point is that no knowledgeable diplomat, no secret agent or Harvard professor can speak with confidence about where turmoil will lead in poor and repressed countries like Egypt. This White House will have to be forgiven for not knowing whether to ride the tiger or help put him back in a cage—for a brief time at least.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

This originally appeared on the DailyBeast

Inside the White House’s Egypt Scramble

As protests erupted in Egypt, Washington struggled desperately to find the right response to the crisis.

Pete Souza / The White House. President Obama being briefed on the events in Egypt by his national security team in a meeting in the Situation Room of the White House.

EGYPT

by John BarryJanuary 30, 2011

For three days straight, as the Cairo crisis gathered momentum, they had hardly left their desks. Now, huddled in the big office of their boss—one of the administration policy-makers trying to calibrate the U.S. response to the unfolding drama—the advisers watched Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s first statement. Two television sets were running, one showing CNN and the other a satellite feed from Al Jazeera. Someone had popped popcorn in a microwave. In the old days, their boss reflected, he would have ordered in pizza, but since 9/11 the ever-expanding security precautions had shut down deliveries of take-out.

The mood was buoyant, as revealed by interviews with several officials involved in the ongoing administration debate that provide at least a preliminary glimpse of their concerns as Egypt spiraled toward chaos.

Had there been an office pool, the boss thought, the favored bet would have been that Mubarak was about to “do an LBJ” and repeat what President Lyndon Johnson did in 1968 in the face of a wave of protests: announce he would not stand in the upcoming presidential election. Certainly, Mubarak’s departure would present the U.S. with a new set of daunting challenges, but at least it would quiet the Egyptian streets and buy some time for mediation.

But as the Egyptian president spoke—a couple of the Arabic speakers in the room providing translation—the optimism died. Mubarak announced he was dismissing his government; he talked of reforms. But he also made clear his determination to stay on. There were groans, shaking of heads. This wasn’t going to be enough to halt the tumult in half of Egypt’s cities, and, more disconcertingly, Mubarak’s assertion that the demonstrations were “part of a bigger plot to shake the stability” of Egypt sounded ominous. The Egyptian president had called out the Army on Friday; now his speech sounded as if he was preparing to use it. President Obama’s Middle East advisers believed that if Egyptian security forces opened fire on demonstrators, the country would likely explode. As Mubarak ended his address, someone in the room voiced the thought on everyone’s mind: “Well, what do we do now?”

In the White House, that judgment was swiftly made. Mubarak’s speech was a climactic moment: It was time for President Obama to act.

Throughout the week, as the crisis gathered storm in Egypt, the administration had otherwise been slow to react, seemingly always one step behind events. This was partly because neither the U.S. intelligence community nor diplomats on the ground foresaw how swiftly the protests in Egypt would gather momentum—even if everyone realized that virtually the entire Arab world is a tinder box of pent-up frustration, with despotic regimes unable to meet the needs of, especially, their youth. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself put it last month, in a speech in Doha that now seems uncannily prescient, Arab leaders would face growing unrest, extremism, and even rebellion unless they reformed “corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order.” It was the starkest warning ever delivered by a senior American official, and a message brought home a few days later when Tunisia erupted in revolt.

Yet, when it came to Egypt, the tone was different, and as the protests in Cairo gathered momentum, Clinton’s initial public comments were a mixture of fact and hopeful fiction. “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” she said, an assessment that didn’t take long to be overtaken by events.

Whether Mubarak indeed was committed to responding to “the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people” remained an open question. Clinton’s statement, however, had been carefully calibrated, coming after the first round of what proved to be an exhausting week of discussions by President Obama and his top officials.

From the start, according to sources privy to the discussions, talks revolved around two objectives: how to cajole Mubarak to respond to the demonstrations, while, at the same time, not saying anything publicly that could be taken as American approval of the forcible overthrow of Arab regimes. But as the demonstrations grew in intensity, that balance became increasingly fraught. The demonstrators were, after all, demanding human and political rights to which the United States is committed, but which Mubarak showed no sign of granting.

After much discussion, it was decided that President Obama would not try to speak directly to Mubarak. According to an informed source, the assessment was that president-to-president intervention should be held in reserve as a last recourse. Besides, any exchange with Mubarak would require Obama to say whether he supported Mubarak’s continued rule. And the president was in a bind: He couldn’t bluntly say no. On the other hand, Egyptian authorities would instantly broadcast any expression of support as proof that Washington was backing Mubarak’s hold on power. (Shown this article for review, the White House said: “There’s nothing we’d comment on here at the moment.”)

So the administration tried to reach Mubarak by other means. The Cairo embassy reached out to his advisers. Other Arab leaders were enlisted. Across the region, the events in Cairo were viewed with mounting concern by other governments. The longer their television screens were filled with those scenes of protest, the likelier they were to trigger comparable uprisings in other capitals. The administration’s message was clear: for your own sake, persuade Mubarak he has to quell the revolt by offering concessions.

By Thursday, though, the Cairo embassy was reporting that Mubarak was mobilizing the Army. Everyone knew that Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, would see the biggest demonstrations yet. Mubarak’s mobilization of the military could only mean that he was set on suppression. There was a real risk of bloodshed—and the judgment both of analysts in Washington and of Arab leaders in other capitals was that killings on any scale could ignite a firestorm—not only in Egypt but across the region.

Taking advantage of a pre-arranged Q&A session on YouTube, Obama warned: “The government has to be careful about not resorting to violence.” Mubarak, he said, needed to be “moving ahead on reform—political reform, economic reform”.

Whether Obama’s warning influenced Mubarak’s actions is unclear. The Army did roll into the streets of Cairo and other cities on Friday. But it did not shoot; and, on Friday evening, Mubarak appeared on television for the first time in the crisis.

Meanwhile at the Pentagon, a high-powered delegation of Egyptian military leaders, including the armed forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, cut short a scheduled week-long visit after only a few hours, departing instead for the airport. Their Pentagon hosts wished them well, with careful expressions of hope that a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Egypt would permit the continuation of the U.S. military’s long-standing relationship with Egypt’s armed forces. (Since the U.S. funds the Egyptian military to the tune of $1.3 billion a year, the message was clear.)

Administration officials suspect—or, at any rate, hope—that Obama’s blunt declaration forced Mubarak’s hand, prompting the Egyptian president to address his nation. What Mubarak offered in his televised speech, however, was “too little, too late,” as someone at that popcorn-eating gathering said. There was no prospect, Obama’s advisers believed, that Mubarak’s vague promises of reform would pacify the streets.

At a meeting on Friday afternoon, Obama and his top officials, including Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon among them, concluded that the time had come for Obama to talk directly to Mubarak. And Mubarak’s address to the Egyptian people had given Obama the opening he wanted. The White House organized the call.

It was an intervention that dramatically—and publicly—escalated the American involvement in the Egyptian crisis. In an address from the White House, Obama outlined what he had told Mubarak, putting the administration unequivocally behind the demonstrators’ demands. “The people of Egypt have rights that are universal,” Obama said in his speech. “And the United States will stand up for them everywhere.” The president also warned both sides against violence but his message was clear: “When President Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people tonight, he pledged a better democracy and greater economic opportunity. I just spoke to him after his speech, and I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise.” And, said Obama, “we are committed to working with the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people—all quarters—to achieve” those goals.

It was a breath-taking pledge, with Obama coming close to making the U.S. the guarantor that Mubarak will act. In Egypt, his reference to “all quarters” will be taken to suggest that the U.S. will even reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood, an unprecedented step.

In the last week, the administration has come a long way.

This originally appeared on the Daily Beast.

January 29, 2011

ARGUMENT: The Worst of Both Worlds – As the revolt in Egypt spreads, Barack Obama faces a familiar dilemma in the Middle East.

Cached:  http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/01/29/the_worst_of_both_worlds

BY GARY SICK | JANUARY 29, 2011

The string of popular uprisings that are rocking the Arab world, most recently in Egypt, have created a fundamental dilemma for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Policymakers are being forced to place a bet on an outcome that is inherently unpredictable and pregnant with some unsavory consequences.

There is no shortage of talk about the conditions in these Arab countries that has given rise to the revolts. They have very young populations, poor economic performance, meager future prospects, a widening divide between the wealthy and the poor, and live with a culture of authoritarian arrogance from governments that have come to regard their position as a matter of entitlement. The line between monarchies and “republics” has become so blurred as to be meaningless. Family dynasties rule … and rule and rule, seemingly forever.

Just about everyone agreed it had to change. But the masses appeared so passive, the governments so efficient at repression — the one job they did really well — that no one was willing to predict when or how change would happen.

Now that the status quo is shaking, there are expressions of amazement that the U.S. government made its bed with such dictatorial regimes for so long. We coddled them and gave them huge sums of money while averting our eyes from the more distasteful aspects of their rule. How to explain this hypocrisy?

The facts are not so mysterious. It was an Egyptian dictator (Anwar Sadat) who made peace with Israel, leading to his assassination; and it was another dictator (Hosni Mubarak) who kept that peace, however cold, for the past 30 years. As part of that initial bargain and successive agreements, the United States has paid in excess of $60 billion to the government of Egypt and an amount approaching $100 billion to Israel. The investment may be huge, but since the Camp David agreement negotiated by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 there has been no new Arab-Israel war.

Some may quibble with the crude implication of a payoff or the collapsing of several generations of politics in the Middle East into this simple formula. But it has some validity. Here is how Vice President Joe Biden answered when PBS anchor Jim Lehrer asked him whether Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was a dictator:

Look, Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region: Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel.

And I think that it would be — I would not refer to him as a dictator.

Leslie Gelb, a former senior U.S. government official and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, put it this way:

The stakes are sky high. Egypt is the linchpin to peace in the Middle East. So long as Egypt refrains from warring against Israel, other Arab states cannot take military action by themselves…

So in some minds, the issue is primarily about Israel. As far as I can tell, the government of Israel has yet to declare itself on the wave of uprisings in the Arab world. But if this is an Israeli issue, then it is not just a U.S. foreign-policy problem but also a domestic one, especially in the run up to a presidential election year. The stakes, indeed, could be very high.

It is often forgotten, but there was a major Israeli dimension to the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 as well. The shah of Iran was Israel’s best friend in the Muslim world, an essential part of Israel’s doctrine of the periphery. Israel not only cultivated nations just outside the core Arab center, but in the case of Iran received a substantial portion of its energy supplies via covert oil deliveries to Eilat from the Persian Gulf. Israel and Iran also collaborated on joint development and testing of a ballistic missile system capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

President Richard Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger formalized the U.S. relationship during a meeting with the shah in 1972. They asked him to serve as the protector of U.S. security interests in the Persian Gulf at a time when the British were withdrawing and the United States was tied down in Indochina. Not only was Iran (and specifically the shah) the linchpin of U.S. regional security, but the United States had no backup plan. So confident was everyone that the shah or his successor would maintain this highly personal relationship that there had been no effort to fashion a Plan B in the event of an unexpected catastrophe.

There is genuine irony in the fact that Carter, Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin were at Camp David, in meetings that set the terms for more than a generation of uneasy peace in the Middle East, on the same day that the shah’s regime experienced what would eventually prove to be its death blow — the massacre of protestors at Jaleh Square in Tehran on Sept. 8, 1978.

There is no need to strain the analogy. Iran and Egypt were and are very different places, with very different political dynamics. But the fundamental nature of the decision that is required today by the United States is not very different from the dilemma faced by the Carter administration three decades ago. Should you back the regime to the hilt, in the conviction that a change of leadership would likely endanger your most precious security interests? Or should you side with the opposition — either because you agree with its goals or simply because you want to be on the “right side of history” (and in a better position to pursue your policy objectives) once the dust has settled?

Of course, there is a third way. You may try to carefully maintain your ties with the current ruler (see Biden above), while offering rhetorical support to freedom of expression, democracy, and human rights. Regrettably, as the Carter administration can attest, that may produce the worst of both worlds. If the ruler falls, he and his supporters will accuse you of being so lukewarm in your support that it was perceived as disavowal; whereas the opposition will dismiss your pious expressions as cynical and ineffectual.

Revolutions are inherently unpredictable. They may fizzle or subside in the face of sustained regime oppression. They may inspire a hard line military man to “restore order” and perhaps thereby elevate himself into a position of political authority that he is later loathe to relinquish. They may propel a determined radical fringe into power and thereby impose an ideology that has nothing to do with what people thought they were fighting for. They may go on far longer than anyone imagined at the start.

But for engaged outside powers, such as the United States in the Egyptian situation, a major revolt calls for a leap into the unknown. If you sit back and wait, events may simply pass you by. But if you jump into the fray too early (or with a mistaken notion of what is actually going on) you may lose all influence in the future political construct, whatever that may be. In any event, you should start thinking about how to repair or rebuild a security structure that had been safely on autopilot for too long.

Welcome to the real world, Mr. Obama.

Day of Rage: photos of Egypt’s unrest

January 29, 2011

‘Revolution of the people': Egyptians return to streets

Cached:  http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41323843/ns/world_news-mideast/n_africa/

Mubarak fires cabinet, appoints new vice president, prime minister but refuses to step down; scores killed, thousands wounded; mummies destroyed at museum

NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 25 minutes ago 2011-01-29T16:56:37

CAIRO — A massive crowd calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak defied a government curfew to gather in the streets and squares of downtown Cairo Saturday afternoon, with protesters making clear they reject promises of reform and a new government offered by the embattled leader trying to hang on to power.

Three people were killed as they stormed the Interior Ministry, Al Jazeera reported.

Mubarak picked a former air force commander and aviation minister, Ahmed Shafiq, as the next prime minister, ensuring men with military links are in the top three political jobs.

Shafiq’s appointment followed announcement earlier that Omar Suleiman, the intelligence chief with military experience, would be vice president and in prime position for the top job if Mubarak does not run in September.

NBC News’ Richard Engel told msnbc the appointments may not be enough to quell the growing opposition. Engel described Suleiman as a “respected leader who has a great deal of experience in world politics.”

Engel said tens of thousands who have been out for five days confronting police are unified in demand — Mubarak must go.

The movement is a culmination of years of simmering frustration over a government they see as corrupt, heavy-handed and neglectful of grinding poverty. There was rampant looting across the sprawling city of 18 million and a growing feeling of fear and insecurity.

Looters broke into the Egyptian Museum during anti-government protests late Friday and destroyed two Pharaonic mummies, Egypt’s top archaeologist told state television.

The museum in central Cairo, which has the world’s biggest collection of Pharaonic antiquities, is adjacent to the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party that protesters had earlier set ablaze. Flames were seen still pouring out of the party headquarters early Saturday.

“I felt deeply sorry today when I came this morning to the Egyptian Museum and found that some had tried to raid the museum by force last night,” Zahi Hawass, chairman of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said Saturday.

“Egyptian citizens tried to prevent them and were joined by the tourism police, but some (looters) managed to enter from above and they destroyed two of the mummies,” he said. He added looters had also ransacked the ticket office.

The two-story museum, built in 1902, houses tens of thousands of objects in its galleries and storerooms, including most of the King Tutankhamen collection.

Key U.S. ally
Mubarak ordered troops and tanks into the capital Cairo and other cities overnight and imposed a curfew in an attempt to quell demonstrations that have shaken the Arab world’s most populous nation, a key U.S. ally, to the core.

CNBC reported that thousands of protesters were marching toward the Ministry of Information carrying a dead body to present to the government, chanting “this is what you’ve done to us.” The Egyptian Army is stationed all around the building.

Other government buildings, including the ruling party’s headquarters, were still blazing on Saturday morning after being set alight by demonstrators who defied the curfew. Citing a source, the BBC also reported Saturday that an explosion had ripped through a state security building in Rafah.

In the city’s main Tahrir Square, at the center of Saturday’s massive demonstration, there was only a light military presence — a few tanks — and soldiers were not intervening. Few police were seen in the crowds and the protest began peacefully but then police opened fire on some people in the crowd near the Interior Ministry and a number of them were wounded by gunshots. It was not clear whether they used rubber bullets or live ammunition.

Al-Jazeera reported that about 50,000 people had gathered in the area. However, it was not immediately possible to verify that figure. CNN reported that the protesters included many women and children.

Picture ripped
One army captain joined the demonstrators, who hoisted him on their shoulders while chanting slogans against Mubarak. The officer ripped a picture of the president.

“We don’t want him! We will go after him!” demonstrators shouted. They decried looting and sabotage, saying: “Those who love Egypt should not sabotage Egypt!”

“Go away, go away,” some of them chanted, gathering in Tahrir Square in full view of troops. “Peaceful, peaceful,” they said.

Tanks were parked on roads leading into the square. One army armored personnel carrier had been gutted by fire. The square was strewn with rubble, burned tires and charred wood that had been used as barricades overnight.

The demonstrators, many of then 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.

Protesters directed their rage overnight by attacking public and ministry buildings, all symbols of Mubarak’s government.

Mahmoud Mohammed Imam, a 26-year-old taxi driver, said: “We were hoping that he was delivering a speech to tell us he was leaving.

“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.”

On Friday, protesters burned down the ruling party’s headquarters complex along the Nile in one of the more dramatic scenes in a day of utter chaos.

The demonstrators did not appear satisfied with Mubarak’s actions to address the discontent. The president of 30 years fired his Cabinet late Friday night and promised reforms, which many doubt he will deliver.

“What we want is for Mubarak to leave, not just his government,” Mohammed Mahmoud, a demonstrator in the city’s main Tahrir Square, said Saturday. “We will not stop protesting until he goes.”

Fifth day
As the protests entered their fifth straight day, the military extended a night curfew imposed Friday in the three major cities where the worst violence has been seen — Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. State television reported the curfew would now begin at 4 p.m. and last until 8 a.m., longer than the 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. ban Friday night that appeared to not have been enforced.

Internet appeared blocked for a second day to hamper protesters who use social networking sites to organize. And after cell phone service was cut for a day Friday, two of the country’s major providers were up and running Saturday.

On Saturday, hundreds of people crowded the capital’s main international airport hoping for a flight out but Western carriers were canceling, delaying or suspending service. A British airline turned around its Cairo-bound jet in mid-flight.

Between 1,500 and 2,000 people flocked to Cairo Intentional Airport, many without reservations. Officials said that about half were tourists and half Egyptians.

Looting
In the capital on Friday night, hundreds of young men carted away televisions, fans and stereo equipment looted from the ruling National Democratic Party, near the Egyptian Museum. Young men formed a human barricade in front of the museum to protect one of Egypt’s most important tourist attractions.

Others around the city looted banks, smashed cars, tore down street signs and pelted armored riot police vehicles with paving stones torn from roadways.

After years of simmering discontent in this nation where protests are generally limited, Egyptians were emboldened to take to the streets by the uprising in Tunisia — another North African Arab nation.

But a police crackdown drew harsh criticism from the Obama administration and even a threat Friday to reduce a $1.5 billion foreign aid program if Washington’s most important Arab ally escalates the use of force.

Stepping up the pressure, President Barack Obama told a news conference he called Mubarak immediately after his TV address and urged the Egyptian leader to take “concrete steps” to expand rights and refrain from violence against protesters.

“The United States will continue to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people and work with their government in pursuit of a future that is more just, more free and more hopeful,” Obama said.

U.S. reaction
Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, speaking on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, said Saturday he believes Mubarak must address the issues that matter to the people of Egypt.

“Dismissing the government doesn’t speak to some of those challenges,” he said. “I think he’s got to speak more to the real issues that people feel,” he said. “Dismissing the government doesn’t speak to some of those challenges.”

On Friday massive crowds numbering in the tens of thousands overwhelmed police forces in Cairo and other cities around the nation with their numbers, attacking them with rocks and firebombs. Police have primarily used countless canisters of tear gas to disperse the crowds and beat them back with batons and sticks. They have also fired rubber bullets and used water cannons.

In a clear sign that things had spiraled out of police control, Mubarak called in the military by Friday night to enforce the night curfew. Late at night, there were scenes of armored personnel carriers filled with troops rolling slowly down the picturesque cornice along the Nile, thronged by cheering crowds who showed them affection.

There have been no clashes reported between the military and the protesters and many of them seem to feel the army is with them. Some even scrawled black graffiti on a tank that read: “Down with Mubarak.”

In contrast, protesters have shown scorn to police, who are hated for their brutality.

Littered with debris
In Tahrir Square, streets were littered with debris, glass, rocks and garbage and what appeared to be bullet casings. Charred fire engines and police trucks still smoldered. Fire engines tried to extinguish a fire in the building housing the government press monitor next to the Egyptian Museum.

Protesters attacked riot police with stones as they tried to enter the square, and officers responded with a barrage of tear gas and rubber bullets.

Some protesters were wearing T-shirts with “Down with Mubarak” emblazoned on their fronts. Others chanted: “The people want to topple the regime.”

Not far from the square, the army sealed off the road leading to the parliament and Cabinet buildings.

Along the Nile, smoke was still billowing from the ruling party’s headquarters, which protesters set ablaze during Friday’s unrest, the most dramatic day of protests since the unrest began on Tuesday.

Rubber bullets
Citing medical sources, hospitals and witnesses, Reuters said 68 people were killed in Cairo, Suez and Alexandria during clashes on Friday between the protesters and police firing rubber bullets, tear gas and wielding batons.

In earlier protests, security sources said at least six people, including a police officer had been killed.

There was no official figure, and the real figure may be very different, given the confusion on the streets.

On Saturday, medical sources told Reuters around 2,000 people had been wounded throughout the country. However, with more protests erupting, that number is almost certain to rise.

The sources were unable to specify whether the victims were police or protesters.

According to Al-Jazeera, live bullets had been fired at protesters in Suez. The report could not be independently verified. Additionally, a witness told Reuters that live ammunition had been used in Alexandria on Saturday. By 2 p.m. local time (7 a.m. ET), CNN said that about 5,000 people had gathered in that city.

Mubarak went on television on Friday night to appeal for calm and promising to address the people’s grievances. He sacked the cabinet but made clear he intended to stay in power.

The cabinet formally resigned during a meeting at about noon local time (5 a.m. ET) on Saturday. A new one was expected to be formed swiftly.

So far, the protest movement seems to have no clear leader or organization.

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. ElBaradei was put under house arrest Friday.

In an interview with France 24 television, El Baradei said Mubarak should step down and begin a transition of power.

“There is a consensus in Egypt in every part of society that this is a regime that is a dictatorship, that has failed to deliver on economic, social, and political fronts,” he said. “We need a new beginning.”

Reuters, The Associated Press, msnbc.com staff and NBC News contributed to this report.

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