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Cairo Falls Into Near Anarchy – Washington Post
Tens of thousands of demonstrators swarmed central Cairo on Saturday in the largest demonstration yet against the rule of the country’s longtime autocratic leader, President Hosni Mubarak. The crowd went unchallenged by troops, who, in extraordinary scenes unfolding around the capital’s central Tahrir Square, smiled and shook hands with protesters and invited them up onto their tanks.
As a 4 p.m. curfew came and went, the square – which police had kept off-limits on Friday – was filled with people as far as the eye could see. The police seemed to have disappeared from the streets following vicious clashes the day before. The army had been hailed on the streets as a potential savior, with protesters giving soldiers thumbs up and openly imploring them to join their movement.
On Friday, the troops had appeared steadfastly neutral. Late Saturday, however, they were doing nothing to move demonstrators out of the streets, despite an earlier announcement by security services that anyone remaining in central squares or major roadways after 4 p.m. would face arrest.
Asked if they would enforce the curfew, soldiers said they would not.
“We are with the people,” said Ahmed, a 20-year-old conscript.
Soldiers accepted fruit, water and soda handed out by protesters in Tahrir Square and smiled as protesters chanted, “Go, Mubarak, go!” Children were hoisted up on tanks in the middle of the square to have their photos taken with troops as the hulking remains of the National Democratic Party headquarters building, home to Mubarak’s ruling organization, burned in the background.
“These soldiers are Egyptians, too. They are suffering just like we are,” said Khalid Ezz el-Din, a 50-year-old businessman who had come to the square to demand Mubarak step down.
Shortly afterward, a convoy of tanks rolled into the square, with as many as 20 protesters riding on each one. As the soldiers smiled and flashed peace signs, the protesters shouted “We are one!” and “Down with Mubarak!”
Earlier Saturday, there had been widespread looting in some neighborhoods of the capital – including the city’s upscale shopping district and the well-to-do suburbs. Government authorities blamed protesters run amok. But demonstrators claimed the destruction was perpetrated by plainclothes employees of the ruling National Democratic Party bent on sowing chaos to discredit the burgeoning pro-democracy campaign.
“We haven’t even broken a lamp,” said Mohammed Yahya, 23, a student protester. “All of this chaos is caused by the government, so they distort our image.”
In addition to waving banners reading, “Down with Mubarak,” protesters displayed new placards Saturday that read, “No looting.”
Aside from the army, there were few signs of government presence in the streets Saturday, although scattered loyalists remained. On one busy downtown street, a Mubarak supporter dressed in a finely tailored suit attempted to wipe away anti-government graffiti that had been sprayed on the burned-out carcass of an armored personnel carrier.
The capital had descended into near-anarchy Friday night, as the government sent riot police, and then the army, to quell protests by tens of thousands of demonstrators.
“We’re not going to stop until Mubarak leaves Egypt. We won’t accept anything less,” said Dalia Fou-ad, 29, who said she had participated in this week’s protests and would continue to do so.
Fou-ad and other demonstrators angrily dismissed as insufficient Mubarak’s after-midnight speech Saturday. In the nationally televised address, the president – who had not spoken publicly since the protests began Tuesday – announced he would dismiss his cabinet, but gave no hint that he intends to yield to protesters’ demand that he give up office. Egyptian state television said the cabinet officially resigned Saturday.
President Obama said a short time after Mubarak’s speech that he had talked with the Egyptian leader after he spoke and pressed him to make long-promised reforms. “What is needed are concrete steps to advance the rights of the Egyptian people,” Obama said.
News services, citing unnamed Egyptian officials, reported Saturday that 30 to 35 people, including 10 policemen, were killed in the week’s protests and that medical officals said 2,000 people had been injured. However, the casualty figures were impossible to verify.
Cellphone service was restored Saturday morning, 24 hours after a government-ordered communications blackout aimed at stopping Friday’s protests. Internet access remained blocked.
Smoke billowed Saturday from the hulking remains of the National Democratic Party headquarters building, home to Mubarak’s ruling organization. The building – a prominent symbol of 82-year-old Mubarak’s autocratic 30-year rule – was reduced to little more than a smoldering mound of concrete.
It remained unclear what role the Egyptian military might play. Mubarak, a former air force officer, draws much of his strength from the military, and any decision by the armed forces to withdraw support would mean the certain end of his rule.
But unlike the police, which unleashed an arsenal of weapons against the demonstrators, the military did not take any immediate action, and protesters gleefully welcomed the soldiers’ arrival in a thundering of personnel carriers.
Protesters were honking their horns in celebration and roaming freely through central parts of the city late in the evening, in defiance of a strict curfew. The night air was thick with black smoke, and the sounds of explosions, gunshots, sirens, cries and occasional cheers echoed through the darkness.
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