Protesters laying siege to the hated Ministry of the Interior fell quiet Saturday when two soldiers appeared in the no man’s land behind armoured vehicles, carrying, in a blanket, the lifeless body of a young man, apparently shot by snipers on the ministry roof.
The crowd parted, eyes fixed on their dead comrade, as the soldiers walked by. Then a military commander climbed on a barricade. “Please, give us a break,” the officer pleaded. “Leave this place. Go stop the thieves in the neighbourhoods. Relieve us of this burden.” The crowd stayed put. Such was the determination as anti-government fury swept on into its fifth day, which saw the death toll rise sharply to 74.
President Hosni Mubarak’s unexpected naming of his intelligence chief as his first-ever vice-president Saturday marked a sharp turning point in his three-decade rule of the North African country. But it was not enough to still the crowds in the streets calling for an end to Mubarak’s rule.
The young man carried off by the soldiers wasn’t the only victim from the interior ministry clashes. The wounded and the dead were initially brought to a nearby mosque, its floor smeared with blood.
The mosque was in a frenzy. A wounded man lay on the floor while people jostled around him to form a human chain and push onlookers back. Next to them, one doctor worked on a man with shattered fingers while another seemed to be searching for a projectile in someone’s stomach.
Eventually the young doctor held up a gloved hand, displaying a remnant of a bloodstained bullet. “This is a massacre,” Dr. Ragab Ali told the Star. The other doctor, Ahmad Moustafa, said he had counted five dead and four critically wounded from the interior ministry clashes. As darkness fell, gunfire also echoed in central Cairo’s residential neighbourhoods — the work of armed thugs looting homes in defiance of a curfew.
Some people claimed the looters were prisoners released and armed by authorities so that the lawlessness can be blamed on the protesters. Others say the weapons came from police stations that have been looted and burned.
On Friday, 17 police stations throughout Cairo were torched, and protesters stole guns and freed some prisoners. They also burned dozens of police trucks in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez.
On Saturday, protesters besieged a police station in the suburb of Giza, looting and pulling down Egyptian flags. They then burned the building to the ground.
Unlike Friday, the hated police force was nowhere to be seen Saturday. Residents are increasingly taking security into their own hands, forming ragtag militias and patrolling their streets with pipes, sticks and machetes.
Tourists flooding Cairo’s international airport for a flight out were left stranded as airlines cancelled or delayed services. Several Arab nations, meanwhile, moved to evacuate their citizens. But the cancellations and the arrival of several largely empty aircraft appeared to herald an ominous erosion of key tourism revenue in a country where 40 per cent of its 80 million people live on less than $2 a day.
On Friday, after tens of thousands fought off riot police and took over Cairo’s streets, Mubarak sacked his whole cabinet. On Saturday, he appointed intelligence chief and longtime confidant Omar Suleiman, 74, as vice-president.
The appointment of Suleiman, who is widely respected within the military, is the first sign of a possible succession in a country whose four presidents since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952 have come from the military. Mubarak, 82, also named Ahmad Shafiq as prime minister. Shafiq, like Mubarak, is a former air force commander.
Protesters in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez treated the news of the appointments with scorn. Their chants all had the same uncompromising theme: Mubarak must go. “Nothing less will do. We are fed up. We have no more patience,” said Aziz Amin, 33, a computer technician.
Mubarak, a longtime ally of Washington, is running out of political moves to save his presidency. A bloodbath is a possibility if he orders the military to crush the revolt. But the military has so far shown no sign of having the stomach for it. The soldiers did not even enforce the 4 p.m. curfew.
Tanks and armoured vehicles were stationed throughout central Cairo, mainly protecting government buildings and major tourist attractions such as the Egyptian Museum, home to some of the country’s treasured antiquities.
Asked by the Star what his orders were, a young soldier sitting atop a tank said: “We took to the streets to protect the people and important buildings. We want peaceful protests. We don’t want vandalism.” Below his feet, scrawled on the side of his tank by a protester, were the words: “Down with Mubarak.” Similar anti-regime graffiti covered almost all military vehicles.
One group of protesters chanting, “the people and the army are hand in hand,” marched to a row of tanks and armoured vehicles and shook hands with the soldiers and posed with them for photos. When four armoured vehicles roared out of the square as darkness fell, they were covered with people standing on them chanting anti-Mubarak slogans.
A day earlier the sentiment on the street had been anger. On Saturday, it was almost euphoric, a sense that the end of Mubarak’s regime is near.
“For 10 years we tried to wake up the people and got little reaction. We thought they were dead,” said Suzanne Esmat, 44, a leader of the Enough Movement, basking in the sea of protesters in Tahrir Square. “Look at them now.” Youssef Farag, 56, put it this way: “The people of Egypt are like the Nile. They are soft, but when they become angry, the flood takes everything.”
“The fear is gone,” said Mohammed Abdel Latif, 52. “I’m not poor. I own a business. On Thursday I was saying: ‘Let me be safe. I won’t go out on the street to protest.’ Today, here I am. I thank the young people for waking up my generation.”
Latif had a message for Western governments, which for decades have backed a president who outlawed opposition parties and manipulated elections: “If you want true friends in the Middle East, befriend the people, not the rulers. If the United States, Europe and Canada decide that Mubarak is no longer their man, he is finished.”
The U.S. alone gives Egypt $1.3 billion (U.S.) a year in military aid. One of many flyers circulating among protesters in Tahrir Square called for a general strike Sunday.
The 18 million residents of this sprawling city awoke Saturday to find not a police officer in sight. Some had shed their uniforms and left them abandoned the street where protesters picked them and waved them gleefully on sticks. The disappearance of police left protesters without the hated face of the regime to clash with.
All day crowds gathered across from the complex that houses the offices of Mubarak’s political party. The massive building, looted Friday, burned out of control for a second day. Now and then chunks of charred concrete came crashing down from its façade.
“They use water (cannons) against the people but they let the buildings burn. Where is the reason in that?” said Ihab El Sheemy, 38, who works at a bank. Many expressed disgust at Friday’s looting and burning of buildings. “I’m an Egyptian and this is the city I love,” said Farag, who owns a computer shop. “I want to bring down the regime, not the city.”