Looting spread across Egypt, and President Hosni Mubarak appointed a vice president as protesters swarmed into the streets for a fifth day, burning buildings, ransacking police offices and marching joyfully past tanks and soldiers.
CAIRO — Looting spread across Egypt, and President Hosni Mubarak appointed a vice president as protesters swarmed into the streets for a fifth day, burning buildings, ransacking police offices and marching joyfully past tanks and soldiers.
Demonstrations aimed at ending Mubarak’s nearly 30 years in power were eclipsed for many by a growing fear of lawlessness. After police retreated from clashes with protesters, vigilantes armed with sticks and knives patrolled Cairo neighborhoods. Reports spread that escaped prisoners and thugs from the ruling party were roaming the capital and other cities on motorcycles.
“We were out guarding our neighborhood, and we caught a number of people attempting to loot, including five carrying identification cards from the Interior Ministry,” said Kamal Banna, a labor activist from Suez, the scene of some of the most violent battles between security forces and protesters since the nationwide revolt began Tuesday.
More than 100 people have died in the unrest of the past week, including at least 25 in Cairo, 38 in Suez and 36 in Alexandria, according to tallies on local TV stations. The Al-Jazeera satellite-television network broadcast footage of at least 20 dead Egyptians in morgues, along with images of their distraught relatives clamoring outside hospitals.
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The retreating police were replaced by the more popular Egyptian army, which was welcomed by protesters who hugged soldiers and snapped souvenir photos of their tanks.
Throughout the day, the military showed extraordinary restraint, even allowing some protesters to write graffiti on some tanks: “Down with Mubarak!” But Egyptians were bracing for a showdown. The question was, will the army stand with the people or with the Mubarak government?
“This is the nation’s army, not Mubarak’s army,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, deputy director of the Cairo-based Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “I think the army will take the side of the Egyptian national movement.”
Mubarak early Saturday refused to step down but said he was asking for the resignation of the entire government. Later in the day, he appointed Ahmed Shafik, a retired Air Force general and former minister of civil aviation, as prime minister, and also Omar Suleiman, head of intelligence and a close friend, as vice president. It is the first time since he took power that Mubarak has had a vice president.
In Suleiman, Mubarak is turning to a trusted ally during one of the nation’s worst political crises. Suleiman is respected by the West and is regarded as a skilled diplomat. He has for years been Egypt’s main negotiator with the Palestinians, and he was credited with taking security measures on a visit to Ethiopia in 1995 that saved Mubarak from assassination.
His appointment also suggests Mubarak’s son, Gamal, whom many regarded as a likely successor, may, at least in the short term, not be in contention. Mubarak was vice president in 1981, when he took power following the assassination Anwar Sadat.
The appointments of Shafik and Suleiman did little to appease tens of thousands of protesters or Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who for many has come to symbolize the opposition movement.
“Mubarak must leave”
“This is a change of personnel, and we are talking about the change of a regime,” ElBaradei told Al-Jazeera satellite-television channel. “The Egyptian people are saying one thing: President Hosni Mubarak must leave. We have to move toward a democratic state.”
But there was no clear indication how the opposition, including ElBaradei and the Muslim Brotherhood, and protest organizers, such as the April 6th Youth Movement, were going to turn a mass street action into a strategically unified force.
Throughout the Middle East on Saturday, the unrest in Egypt continued to captivate citizens tired of repressive, corrupt rulers. In Iran, students demonstrated to show their support for protesters in Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries. Demonstrations in support of the Egyptian movement also were held in Lebanon and Yemen.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia denounced Egypt’s protests for “inciting a malicious sedition,” while in Jordan the leader of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood warned the unrest would spread across the region to topple leaders allied with the United States. In Yemen, a small anti-government protest turned violent as demonstrators clashed with security forces.
The Obama administration kept a careful watch on developments in Egypt, a key ally that receives billions of dollars of U.S. aid. President Obama, who spoke to Mubarak on Friday, met for an hour Saturday with Vice President Joseph Biden, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and other top advisers, the White House said.
The president “reiterated our focus on opposing violence and calling for restraint,” the White House said.
In Cairo, demonstrators gathered for a second day outside the Interior Ministry, home of the much-reviled police. Security forces bunkered inside the ministry shot and killed three demonstrators. Across much of the capital and in other cities, protests were intense if a bit smaller than Friday.
The headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party, set alight Friday, continued to burn. Curators of the adjacent Egyptian Museum’s ancient artifacts feared they could be damaged if the party headquarters collapsed on the museum.
Army troops secured the museum and its grounds early Saturday after young Egyptians armed with clubs set up a cordon around it to protect it.
But before protective measures were taken, vandals had gotten inside and tore the heads off two mummies, antiquities director Zahi Hawass told the Al-Arabiya news network.
Outside the museum, demonstrators chanted: “Wake up, Mubarak. This is your last day in power!”
The army had filled a vacuum of retreating policemen, who camped wearily in neighborhoods and along the Nile corniche, where charred cars sat along roadsides.
Although many demonstrators expressed contempt for police and viewed their absence as a victory, others accused the government of withdrawing security forces in a cynical attempt to spark anarchy and violence.
Khalid Labban, 32, who lives in the western part of Cairo, said he rushed out of his home Saturday afternoon to defend a neighborhood retail shop from gangs trying to break in with clubs.
“My hand is swollen from having to swat people away,” he said.
Gunfire rattled across neighborhoods, and some residents padlocked their doors. Foreigners called one another for advice and contemplated leaving the country. Hotels boarded up their entrances.
The mood across the capital was one of uncertainty over where the revolt, inspired by the Tunisian uprising that toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, would veer next.
“The government is trying to transform the people’s revolution into looting mobs so they can justify cracking down,” said Cairo University Professor Mahael Said, 51, who has been participating in the street protests since Friday. “But we are not going to let them do that.”
Material from McClatchy Newspapers and The Washington Post is included in this report.