Mubarak flies from Cairo to Sinai resort as massive crowds protest, army asserts authority

Egypt’s powerful military tried to defuse outrage over President Hosni Mubarak’s refusal to step down, assuring it would guarantee promised reforms.

Anti-government protesters chant slogans at the continuing demonstration in Tahrir Square

Anti-government protesters chant slogans at the continuing demonstration in Tahrir Square

CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt’s powerful military tried to defuse outrage over President Hosni Mubarak’s refusal to step down, assuring it would guarantee promised reforms. But hundreds of thousands demanding Mubarak go only grew angrier, deluging squares in cities across the country Friday and marching on presidential palaces and the state TV building, key symbols of the authoritarian regime.

A day after handing most of his powers to his vice-president, Mubarak flew to the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, some 250 miles away from the turmoil. He has a palace there where he often lives and works during the winter. State TV said a presidential statement would be issued soon on Friday/

The army’s new message Friday was the second in two days giving the strong impression that Egypt’s strongest institution had taken control of the country’s political transition, pushing Mubarak aside.

But the mass protest movement now exploding in its 18th day demanded his outright resignation. The military’s statement consented to Mubarak’s handover of authorities while retaining his post, a profound disappointment to protesters who called for the military to oust him. Despite the transfer of powers, Mubarak retains his post and could in theory take back his authorities, and in his speech Thursday night he spoke as if he was still very much in charge.

Shock that Mubarak did not step down on Thursday turned to rage on Friday, and protests escalated.

Nearly 20,000 demonstrators massed outside the gates of Mubarak’s main palace, Oruba, in northern Cairo, including a a fleet of dozens on motorcycles chanting, “Down, down Mubarak.” Troops manning four tanks and rolls of barbed wire in front of the gates did nothing to stop the rally. Instead, they threw biscuits and cookies to protesters, who joked with them and cheered when the tanks turned their turret guns away from the crowd.

“The low-ranking officers are telling us indirectly that they are with the people,” said Mohamed Bayouni, an accountant among the protesters.

“What are you waiting for?” another protester yelled in the face of an army officer, urging soldiers to rise up against Mubarak.

Ahmed Kassam, an engineer, said he walked two hours from Tahrir to the palace. “We were shouting at people standing in their balconies and they came down and joined us. We have thousands behind us,” he said.

“Today I feel that something is going to change. I feel very very powerful.”

The march on the palace were the first by protesters who for nearly three weeks have centred their mass demonstrations in Cairo’s downtown Tahrir Square.

Downtown, more than 10,000 tore apart military barricades in front of the towering State Television and Radio building, a pro-Mubarak bastion that has aired constant commentary supporting him and dismissing the protests. They swarmed on the Nile River corniche at the foot of the building, beating drums and chanting, “Leave! Leave! Leave!” They blocked employees from entering, vowing to silence the broadcast.

Soldiers in tanks in front of the building did nothing to stop them, though state TV continued to air.

“The employees have been perpetuating lies and haven’t been broadcasting the real message, feelings, and voice of the Egyptian people,” said Mahmoud Ahmed, a 25-year-old graphic designer. “Nobody in Egypt feels like they know what is happening because state television is lying to them.”

The protesters shouted, “We are here, where is Al-Jazeera.” The pan-Arab news network has aired blanket coverage of the demonstrations, largely positive, and has been targeted by the government.

Other protesters massed outside the Cabinet and parliament buildings, both largely empty, several blocks from Tahrir.

Tahrir Square was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with a crowd that rivaled the quarter-million figure of the biggest protests, stunned by Mubarak’s blunt determination not to bend in the face of the biggest mass uprising in Egypt’s history.

More than 100,000 massed in the main square in Egypt’s second biggest city, Alexandria. In the afternoon, the giant crowd marched toward Ras el-Tin Palace, Mubarak’s main residence in the city, with thousands more joining their ranks to fill a long stretch of the main seaside boulevard on the Mediterranean.

In Assiut, the main city of southern Egypt, about 40,000 protesters, including thousands who streamed in from nearby villages, marched down the main avenue, chanting for Mubarak to go. Thousands set base around the main security headquarters, guarded by riot police, and others headed toward the provincial government headquarters, guarded by the army. “You go along with your regime, Mubarak,” the protesters shouted.

Police opened fire on protesters in the nearby town of Deirout, wounding at least four when they threw stones at the police station.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in many Egyptian cities, as soldiers stood by without interfering. In the northern Nile Delta province Menoufia, where Mubarak was born, tens of thousands took to the streets of the provincial capital Shebin el-Kom, carrying banners and shouting, “Go, go!”

In southern cities, Sohag and Minya, and the Suez Canal cities of Suez and Ismailia, nearly 100,000 people marched down the main streets, some marching on local government headquarters. Thousands marched in the north Sinai city of el-Arish, chanting against Mubarak, and masked gunmen — apparently local Bedouin seeking revenge for past arrests — attacked a police station, sparking clashes that killed at least one attacker.

In the multiple demonstrations, protesters vowed they were more determined than ever and continued to try to win military support, chanting “the people and the army are one hand.”

“Entire nation is on the streets. Only way out is for regime to go. People power can’t be crushed. We shall prevail. Still hope army can join,” read a Tweet on Friday from Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, whose supporters are among the youth activists organizing the protest movement.

In Cairo’s Tahrir, a Muslim cleric urged the protesters never to give up in a sermon to tens of thousands of protesters seated in row after row sweeping across the sprawling plaza and over military vehicles.

“We lived long years where no one could speak a word … Today we tell this regime to go,” he said. “We will pray in this square this Friday and the Friday after and the Friday after and we will defend our dignity.

The Armed Forces Supreme Council, the military’s highest body, depicted itself as the champion of reform in its latest statement, trying to win the trust of an angry and skeptical population with a new statement Friday titled “Communique No. 2,” following a similar announcement a day earlier.

It promised to make sure Mubarak lifts hated emergency laws immediately once protests end, saying the law should go “immediately after the end of the current circumstances.” Mubarak and his Vice-President Omar Suleiman had only given a vague timetable for ending the law — when security permits.

The law, in place since 1981, gives police and security forces almost unlimited powers of arrest, which opponents say they have used to crush dissent. Police are also accused of widespread use of torture.

The Supreme Council, made up of the military’s top generals and heads of branches, said it was keeping tabs on Mubarak’s transfer of powers. It said it would make sure that Mubarak and Suleiman — both military men — stuck to their promises for reform.

The armed forces, it said, “are committed to shepherding the legitimate demands of the people and to work for their implementation within a defined timetable until achieving a peaceful transition all through a democratic society.”

It promised to prevent any retaliation against or arrest of protesters, whom it called “the honourable sons of the nation who rejected corruption and demanded reform.”

It also called for public services to resume and urged “the return of normal life in order to safeguard the achievements of our glorious people.”

Hopes that Mubarak would resign had been raised Thursday when the military council issued its Communique No. 1, announcing it had stepped in to secure the country, and a senior commander told protesters in Tahrir Square that all their demands would soon be met.

Instead, several hundred thousand people watched in disbelief and anger as Mubarak refused to step down in his televised address several hours later. It remains unknown whether the generals had wanted Mubarak to resign outright and he resisted, resulting in a compromise of the transfer to Suleiman — but the confusion Thursday suggested that deputizing Suleiman had not been the generals’ preferred choice.

Suleiman has led the regime’s efforts to deal with the crisis since protests first erupted on Jan. 25, but his attempts largely failed. Protests spirally even further out of control, growing in size and inspiring widespread labour protests, with the movement widely distrusting Suleiman’s promises of reform.

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