CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt’s most prominent democracy advocate took up a bullhorn Sunday to call for President Hosni Mubarak to go, speaking to thousands of protesters who defied a third night of curfew to mass in the capital’s main square. Fighter jets streaked low overhead and police returned to the streets as Egypt’s government tried to show its authority over a situation spiraling out of control.
Nobel Peace laureate Mohammed ElBaradei addressed the crowds in Tahrir Square, where up to 10,000 protesters gathered during the day. Even when he spoke hours after the 4 p.m. curfew, they numbered in the thousands, including families with young children, addressing Mubarak with their chants of “Leave, leave, leave.”
“You are the owners of this revolution. You are the future,” ElBaradei told supporters. “Our essential demand is the departure of the regime and the beginning of a new Egypt in which every Egyptian lives in virtue, freedom and dignity.”
In a further sign of Mubarak’s teetering position, his top ally the United States called for an “orderly transition to democracy.”
Asked if Washington supports Mubarak as Egypt’s leader, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton avoided a direct answer, telling Fox News in an interview, “We have been very clear that we want to see a transition to democracy, and we want to see the kind of steps taken that will bring that about.”
Now in their sixth day, the protests have come to be centred in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, where demonstrators have camped out since Friday despite the curfew, which officials announced would be moved up to 3 p.m. starting Monday. Protesters have shrugged off Mubarak’s gestures of reform, including the sacking of his Cabinet and the appointment of a vice-president and a new prime minister — both seen as figures from the heart of his regime.
The military was taking the lead in restoring order after police virtually vanished from the streets on Friday without explanation after initially clashing with protesters. The disappearance of the police opened the door for a wave of looting, armed robberies and arson in cities around the country.
The anarchy was further fueled when gangs of armed men attacked at least four jails across Egypt before dawn Sunday, freeing hundreds of criminals and Muslim militants. Gangs of young men with guns and large sticks smashed cars and robbed people in Cairo.
The official death toll from the crisis stood at 97, with thousands injured, but reports from witnesses across the country indicated that the actual toll was far higher.
The military, which enjoys far greater support among the public than the police, fanned out in tanks and armoured vehicles around the city starting Sunday morning. At Tahrir Square, they appeared to co-operate with protesters in keeping the demonstrations orderly, and there were many scenes of affection between soldiers and protesters, who allowed troops to use their mobile phones to call home or offered them cigarettes.
“I am glad they are continuing to protest. God willing, he (Mubarak) will go,” said one Air Force captain in uniform who drove by the edge of the square.
One banner held by protesters summed up the dilemma facing the military, proclaiming, “The army must chose between Egypt and Mubarak.”
Minutes before the start of the curfew, at least two jets roared over the Nile, making several passes over the square, dropping lower every time and setting off alarms in parked cars. Some protesters clapped and waved to them while others jeered.
Police on Sunday began reasserting their presence, moving back into some Cairo neighbourhoods. In some spots, they were jeered by residents who chanted anti-police slogans.
Interior Minister Habib al-Adly said he was ordering security forces to return to the streets in Cairo and elsewhere to work in tandem with army troops to restore order.
“It is necessary that the police role is quickly restored and that there should be co-operation in the field with the armed forces … to defend the presence and future of the nation.”
The police move could put an end to lawlessness and looting, which stunned many Cairenes and which the military struggled to control. But it could also lead to renewed clashes with protesters, among whom hatred of the black-garbed security forces runs deep — though it appeared the police would not be deployed in Tahrir Square.
In a sign of the distrust, many protesters were convinced the police intentionally allowed the looting in an attempt to spread chaos that would undermine the political demonstrations.
“Those people who are looting are from the police, they want to scare us and make us stay home and not participate in the demonstrations,” said Walid Ambar, an engineer who joined the crowds in Tahrir along with his 2-year-old son and pregnant wife. “This is a campaign to scare us. But I came here to join the demonstration and I will not leave until Mubarak leaves.”
In a bid to show he remained in control, the 82-year-old Mubarak met with his defence minister and Omar Suleiman, the military intelligence chief whom he named as vice-president over the weekend, to review the security situation. Later Sunday, a tired looking Mubarak was shown on state TV conferring with Suleiman and the new prime minister-designate Ahmed Shafiq, like Mubarak a former air force officer.
An unprecedented Internet cutoff remained in place for a third day after the country’s four primary Internet providers stopped moving data in and out of the country early Friday in an apparent move by authorities to disrupt the organization of demonstrations. Egyptian mobile-phone networks were back up but with text-messaging widely disrupted.
The lawlessness, uncertainty, and indications of an attempted exodus from Cairo were gravely damaging Egypt’s economy, particularly tourism, which accounts for as much as 11 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Banks were closed on orders from Egypt’s Central Bank, and the country’s stock market was shut on what is normally the first day of the trading week.
On the first day of trading across the Mideast after a weekend of protests and violence, nervous investors drove stocks down sharply. Crowds of foreigners filled Cairo International Airport, desperate and unable to leave because dozens of flights were cancelled and delayed.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo told its citizens in Egypt to consider leaving the country as soon as possible, and said it had authorized the voluntary departure of dependents and non-emergency employees, a display of Washington’s escalating concern about the stability of its closest Arab ally.
ElBaradei’s appearance in Tahrir Square underscored the jockeying for leadership of the protest movement, which erupted seemingly out of nowhere to shake the nation, inspired in part by protests in the nearby Arab nation of Tunisia that forced out its autocratic president.
ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, has gained a following among young secular democracy activists with his grassroots organizing. But some demonstrators dismissed him as an expatriate long removed from the country’s problems.
“Many people feel he loves prizes and travelling abroad,” said Muhammad Munir, 27. “He’s not really one of the people.”
The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to establish an Islamist state in the Arab world’s most populous nation, also appeared to moving for a more prominent presence after largely lying low when the protests first erupted. Sunday evening, the presence of overtly pious Muslims in the square was conspicuous, suggesting a significant Muslim Brotherhood representation. Hundreds performed the sunset prayers. Veiled women prayed separately.
A senior Brotherhood leader, Essam el-Erian, told The Associated Press he was heading to Tahrir Square to meet with other opposition leaders. Though the Brotherhood has made some statements suggesting it was willing to let ElBaradei act as pointman in any negotiations, el-Erian also suggested the movement wants a major role. He told one Egyptian TV station that the Brotherhood is ready to contact the army for a dialogue, calling the military “the protector of the nation.”
Egyptian security officials said that overnight armed men fired at guards in gun battles that lasted hours at the four prisons including one northwest of Cairo that held hundreds of militants. The prisoners escaped after starting fires and clashing with guards.
Those who fled included 34 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose lawyer, Abdel-Monaem Abdel-Maqsoud, told The Associated Press they were among scores rounded up by authorities ahead of large anti-government demonstrations on Friday. The escapees included at least seven senior members of the group.
State TV later reported that 1,000 escaped inmates were recaptured.
In the southern city of Assiut, officials said riot police stormed the city’s main prison to quell a prison riot, using tear gas and batons against inmates. An Associated Press reporter saw army tanks were deployed outside the prison, on bridges straddling the Nile and at the police headquarters.
The pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera said that Egyptian authorities ordered the closure of its Cairo news hub overseeing coverage of the country’s massive street protests, denouncing the move as an attempt to “stifle and repress” open reporting.
The Qatar-based network has given nearly round-the-clock coverage to the unprecedented uprising against Mubarak and had faced criticism by some government supporters and other Arab leaders as a forum to inspire more unrest.