A day after massive demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak turned into raging battles with police, protesters remained on the streets of Cairo Saturday, confident that they could force the ouster of the president even as he sought to pacify them by appointing a new government.
On Saturday, Mr. Mubarak appointed Omar Suleiman as Egypt’s first vice president in 30 years. Mr. Suleiman has been Egypt’s longstanding intelligence chief. Like Mubarak, he rose through the ranks of the military, and is seen as loyal to the president.
Mubarak’s appointments of two allies a day after he dissolved the government cemented his image with many protesters, who said that he doesn’t realize that Egyptians won’t be satisfied until he is gone. In that respect, the situation in Egypt resembles the last days of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was driven from power Jan. 14 after four weeks of protests.
Many Egyptians credit the revolution in Tunisia with giving them the courage to muster their own uprising – and the similarities in both countries' uprisings are not a good sign for Mubarak.
“It’s not enough that he changes certain officials,” says Heba Mahrous, who held a sign protesting against Mubarak in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Saturday. “The whole regime must change. We’re staying here until Mubarak leaves.”
The signs of last night’s battle were still evident in central Cairo Saturday. Hulks of police cars smoldered in the streets, which were covered in soot and debris. The headquarters of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, gutted by fire, was still smoking. Army tanks guarded the national museum, home to priceless antiquities, which was partially vandalized overnight. Al Jazeera television showed pictures of broken items within the museum, but reported that nothing had been stolen.
Al Jazeera also reported that at least 100 people were killed Friday, and multiple witnesses Saturday reported seeing gunshot wounds from live ammunition.
In contrast to the crowds fighting tear gas and armored vehicles Friday, the mood of the tens of thousands of protesters who gathered Saturday was much lighter, even festive at times. They marched around the square, chanting slogans against the president and expressing certainty that it was only a matter of time until he was forced from power. One man held a helium balloon with a note taped to it that read, “Free Egypt.”
The police, hated by the people, were nowhere to be seen. Instead, Army tanks and armored vehicles were stationed around the downtown, and Egyptians offered the soldiers flowers and took photos in front of their tanks.
The Army’s long history of professionalism in Egypt has earned it the respect and admiration of the public, despite the fact that Mubarak is its commander in chief. Scrawled on the sides of many of the tanks, presumably by citizens, were the words, “Down with Mubarak.”
“The Army came to protect us,” says Hassan Ibrahim Mohamed, a bystander, as a crowd lifted an Army officer onto its shoulders and began cheering. “The police torture us, hit us, and harass us, but the Army means freedom and respect. They are with us.”
Though most of the day was calm, the Army exchanged fire with police near the Interior Ministry late Saturday afternoon. Young men stood atop the tanks as they raced down the street toward the police, and people ducked for cover as rubber bullets whizzed overhead. At least two people were wounded in the clashes. Despite the danger, Egyptians gathered behind the tanks, shouting in support of the Army.
The role of the Army in securing Egyptian streets and protecting the people from the police is another echo of Tunisia, where the Army stepped in after police fired on the crowds.
And in yet another parallel, in many Cairo neighborhoods outside the downtown yesterday, many people defied a curfew to guard their neighborhoods with clubs after reporting of looting overnight. Gunfire echoed in the upscale neighborhood of Maadi. While the military has a heavy presence downtown and manned checkpoints on major roads, it was absent from the neighborhoods. With police absent as well, the Army on Saturday urged citizens to protect their property themselves.