CAIRO, Egypt — Embattled President Hosni Mubarak fired his Cabinet early Saturday and promised reforms after protesters engulfed his country in chaos — battling police with stones and firebombs, burning down the ruling party headquarters and defying a night curfew enforced by a military deployment.
It was the peak of unrest posing the most dire threat to Mubarak in his three decades of authoritarian rule.
Many protesters were outraged further by Mubarak’s nationally televised address just after midnight, which saw him defend a police crackdown that drew harsh criticism from the Obama administration and even a threat to reduce a $1.5 billion program of foreign aid if Washington’s most important Arab ally escalates the use of force.
“We want Mubarak to go and instead he is digging in further,” protester Kamal Mohammad said. “He thinks it is calming down the situation but he is just angering people more.”
Pouring onto the streets after Friday noon prayers, protesters ignored extreme government measures that included cutting off the Internet and mobile-phone services in Cairo and other areas, calling the army into the streets and then imposing a nationwide night-time curfew.
Flames rose in cities across Egypt as police cars burned and protesters set the ruling party headquarters in Cairo ablaze. Hundreds of young men tore televisions, fans and stereo equipment from other buildings of the National Democratic Party neighbouring the Egyptian Museum, home of King Tutankhamun’s treasures and one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions.
Young men could be seen forming a human barricade in front of the museum to protect it.
President Barack Obama, forced to choose between a linchpin of U.S. foreign policy and a democratic uprising demanding his ouster, said he had personally told Mubarak to take “concrete steps” to expand rights for his people.
Security officials said there were protests in at least 11 of the country’s 28 provinces, and unrest roiled major cities like Alexandria, Suez, Assiut and Port Said. At least one protester was killed, bringing the official death toll for the week of protest to eight.
But demonstrators were seen dragging blooded, unconsciousness fellow protesters to waiting cars and on to hospitals, and no official number of wounded, or updated death toll, was immediately available.
Insisting the 82-year-old former air force commander step down this year and not hand power to his son, Gamal, the demonstrators appeared have narrowed the options for a president who until this week maintained what looked like rock-solid control of the most populous Arab nation and the cultural heart of the region.
Mubarak now seems faced with the choice between a harsher crackdown and major concessions to tens of thousands of rich, poor and middle-class protesters united in rage against a regime seen as corrupt, abusive and neglectful of the nearly half of Egypt’s 80 million people who live below the poverty line of $2 a day.
“We want more democracy, more efforts to combat unemployment and poverty and combat corruption,” a sombre-looking Mubarak said, calling the protests “part of a bigger plot to shake the stability and destroy the legitimacy” of the political system.
“I will not shy away from taking any decision that maintains the security of every Egyptian,” he vowed.
Mubarak’s decision to dismiss Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and the rest of the Cabinet would have been interpreted as a serious attempt at bringing change under normal circumstances. But it fell far short of Egyptians’ suddenly expanded expectations.
“Mubarak didn’t meet any of the demands of the people and they will continue to demonstrate,” said Faiza Hendawi, a 36-year-old journalist. “He thinks by speaking to us he will calm it down. What he doesn’t understand is that this is a revolution.”
Once-unimaginable scenes of anarchy along the Nile played out on television and computer screens from Algiers to Riyadh, two weeks to the day after protesters in Tunisia drove out their autocratic president. Images of the protests in the smaller North African country emboldened Egyptians to launch four straight days of increasingly fearless demonstrations organized over mobile phone, Facebook and Twitter.
Around Cairo, people looted banks, smashed cars, tore down street signs and pelted armoured riot police vehicles with paving stones torn from roadways.
Demonstrators wielding rocks, glass and sticks chased hundreds of riot police away from the main square in downtown Cairo and several of the policemen stripped off their uniforms and badges and joined the demonstrators.
An Associated Press reporter saw the protesters cheering the police who joined them and hoisting them on their shoulders.
“We are the ones who will bring change,” said 21-year-old Ahmed Sharif. “If we do nothing, things will get worse. Change must come!” he screamed through a surgical mask he wore to ward off the tear gas.
Egypt’s national airline halted flights for at least 12 hours and a Cairo Airport official said a number of international airlines had cancelled flights to the capital, at least overnight. There were long lines at many supermarkets and employees limited bread sales to 10 rolls per person. The State Department urged Americans to defer any non-essential travel to Egypt.
Mubarak said the unrest was striking fear in the heart of the majority of Egyptians concerned about the future of their country. He defended a crackdown on protesters that included clouds of tear gas, beatings, rubber bullets and cuts to the Internet and cellphones.
He said he had given them instructions that the protesters be allowed to express their views. But, he said, acts of violence and vandalism left the security forces with no choice but to react to restore order.
“Violence will not solve the problems we face or realize the objectives we aspire to,” he said.
Egypt has been one of the United States’ closest allies in the region since President Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel in 1979 after talks at Camp David.
Mubarak kept that deal after Sadat’s 1981 assassination and has been a close partner of every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter, helping Washington exert its will on issues that range from suppressing Islamist violence to counterbalancing the rise of Iran’s anti-American Shiite theocracy.
The government’s self-declared crowning legacy has been its economic achievements: rising GDP and a surging private sector led by a construction boom and vibrant, seemingly recession-proof banks.
But many say the fruits of growth in this formerly socialist economy have been funneled almost entirely to a politically connected elite, leaving average Egyptians surrounded by unattainable symbols of wealth such as luxury housing and high-priced electronics as they struggle to find jobs, pay daily bills and find affordable housing.
A Facebook page run by protesters listed their demands. They want Mubarak to declare that neither he nor his son will stand for next presidential elections; dissolve the parliament holds new elections; end to emergency laws giving police extensive powers of arrest and detention; release all prisoners including protesters and those who have been in jail for years without charge or trial; and immediately fire the interior minister.
“Surely, there will be difficult days to come, but the United States will continue to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people and work with their government in pursuit of a future that is more just, more free and more hopeful,” Obama said he told Mubarak in a phone call from the White House.
The uprising united the economically struggling and the prosperous, the secular and the religious. The country’s most popular opposition group, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, did not advertise its presence and it was not immediately clear how much of a role it played in bringing people to the streets.
Many protesters chanted “God is great!” and stopped their demonstrations to pray.
Young men in one downtown square clambered onto a statue of Talat Harb, a pioneering Egyptian economist, and unfurled a large green banner that proclaimed “The Middle Class” in white Arabic lettering.
Women dressed in black veils and wide, flowing robes followed women with expensive hairdos, tight jeans and American sneakers.
The crowd included Christian men with keyrings of the cross swinging from their pockets and young men dressed in fast-food restaurant uniforms.
When a man sporting a long beard and a white robe began chanting an Islamist slogan, he was grabbed and shaken by another protester telling him to keep the slogans patriotic and not religious.
Women were largely unmolested in a city where sexual harassment on the streets is persistent.
In downtown Cairo, people on balconies tossed cans of Pepsi and bottles of water to protesters on the streets below to douse their eyes, as well as onions and lemons to sniff, to cut the sting of the tear gas.
The troubles were preventing trains from coming to Cairo, a city of 18 million people, security officials said.
Some of the most serious violence Friday was in Suez, where protesters seized weapons stored in a police station and asked the policemen inside to leave the building before they burned it down. They also set ablaze about 20 police trucks parked nearby. Demonstrators exchanged fire with policemen trying to stop them from storming another police station and one protester was killed in the gun battle.
In Assiut in southern Egypt, several thousand demonstrators clashed with police that set upon them with batons and sticks, chasing them through side streets.
Protesters appeared unfazed by the absence of Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, one of the country’s leading pro-democracy advocates. The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency was soaked with a water cannon as protests erupted after Friday, and then prevented by police from leaving after he returned to his home.
The White House praised ElBaradei and said the government’s policy of keeping him under house arrest had to change.
Associated Press reporters Sarah El Deeb, Maggie Michael and Diaa Hadid contributed to this report.