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