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Mubarak promises reform, but defends crackdown on protesters

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak dismissed his government but gave no sign in a defiant national television address early Saturday that he would be driven from office by widespread protests that have shaken his security forces, killed at least 25 people and left spirals of smoke across the capital.

His speech shortly after midnight was an indication that he believed his security forces and military had a tight grip on the country despite protests Friday that shut down much of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities. It highlighted the pivotal role the Egyptian military, long regarded as the quiet, stabilizing power behind the government, will probably play in coming days.

“I take responsibility for the security of this country and its citizens,” Mubarak said. “I will not let this country live in fear.... I am dismissing the government and will appoint a new one.”

The statement was characteristic of Mubarak, a former air force officer who for three decades has crushed dissent and silenced opponents. He only briefly touched on the severe poverty, inflation, unemployment and other social problems that helped trigger the protest movement.

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“I know all the things people are asking. I’ve never been separated from them,” said the 82-year-old president, dressed in a dark suit and looking pale. “I will always be on the side of the poor.”

Those words alone are unlikely to placate tens of thousands of protesters, who have braved tear gas, beatings, rubber bullets and water cannons while chanting “Down with Mubarak!”

Egyptians have been emboldened by the revolt in Tunisia, where weeks of demonstrations ended President Zine el Abidine ben Ali’s 23-year rule this month and forced him to flee the country.

But unlike Tunisia, Egypt is at the heart of the Arab world and people across region long frustrated by entrenched, corrupt leadership were gripped by images of pitched battles in the streets of Cairo.

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And Mubarak, unlike Ben Ali, did not flinch or offer concessions. Dismissing his Cabinet probably will amount to little more than changing personalities while sticking to the ideology shared by the inner circle of the ruling National Democratic Party.

“It’s the same as if nothing has happened,” Alaa Thabet, a protester in the center of Cairo, said after Mubarak’s speech. “As long as he is in power, he will bring another government that will keep giving us the same bad policies.”

Through the days, demonstrators swept across Egypt, with the country veering toward anarchy. Protesters stormed the boulevards of Alexandria and Suez.

In Cairo, they battled with police on a downtown bridge, Qasr el Nil, as tear gas canisters spiraled and hissed when splashing into the Nile. Bloodied demonstrators and police officers were carried away as crowds set fire to the headquarters of the ruling party and attempted to storm the Foreign Ministry and state TV office. The army moved in to protect government buildings.

State television reported that 13 people were killed in Suez and several more in Cairo, adding to the toll from earlier in the week.

The breadth of the revolt was an indication that Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition party, can bring out large numbers of people when aligned with student activists and young professionals worried about their future.

After being sprayed with water cannon and stung by tear gas, ElBaradei, who for many has been the symbol for a new Egypt, said the crackdown revealed a “completely desperate” regime that had to be overthrown.

He bluntly challenged the U.S. and other Western allies of Mubarak that it was “time for the international community to express its view on the so-called stability of the Egyptian government. If they don’t do that now, they will lose the residue of credibility they have in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.”

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ElBaradei was placed under house arrest later Friday.

Washington has for years depended on Mubarak for help on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fighting terrorism and other key issues, and provided Egypt with billions of dollars in aid. Speaking in Washington hours after Mubarak appeared on television, President Obama suggested that continued U.S. support may depend on immediate reforms.

“Going forward, this moment of volatility has to be turned into a moment of promise,” Obama said.

“When President Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people tonight, he pledged a better democracy and greater economic opportunity,” Obama said. “I just spoke to him after his speech and I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words.”

Early Friday, security forces shut down the Internet and cellphone systems to disrupt Twitter and other social networks that activists have used to communicate and organize protests.

Swaths of Cairo, normally teeming with traffic, were nearly desolate, and then, a crowd of protesters would swell across a street, turning back cars.

The government imposed a curfew. Hotels advised tourists to stay in their rooms. Police officers arrested journalists and confiscated cameras.

“The police are trying to kill this protest as quickly as they can because they know they can’t win in a long war with the people,” said Ahmed Abdel Zaher, 25, shielding his face from plumes of tear gas outside a Cairo mosque. “We are rising now. I was born under Mubarak and it seems I might die while he’s still in power. But, God willing, this protest will be endless.”

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Mohammed Kamel was frightened: “The government is breeding terrorism,” he said. “I came today very peacefully with my son. They threw stones at me. But the next time I won’t come empty-handed.”

The nation’s mood changed from fear to joy to rage; but most pervasive was a sense of not knowing who was in charge or what was unfolding. When riot police retreated late in the day and the army moved in to impose order, it was a cause for celebration.

Protesters flashed victory signs as military police took positions in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square. But suspicion grew when new volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets were fired. Many Egyptians suspected that the army was preparing to clamp down and rally around Mubarak, who enjoys the loyalty of top commanders.

“We’re really afraid now that the army’s intervention means that they will give the country back to Mubarak,” said Ragab Nasr.

“The army’s presence is just a game to distract the protesters. Every time the army appears, we are bombarded with tear gas and rubber bullets from the police,” protester Sharif Amin said early Saturday.

By midnight, much of Cairo was calm. Despite a curfew and the distant smell of tear gas, hundreds of people, including families with children, milled about in the city center. Some stopped for coffee; others chatted with police.

The focus turned to the meaning of Mubarak’s speech and the role of the military, which receives more than $1 billion in annual U.S. aid.

Since Egypt’s independence from Britain in 1952, the nation’s presidents — Gamal Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak — have been military officers.

The imprint of the military’s influence is substantial: museums, war memorials, officers’ clubs and industries that sprawl across the capital. Egyptians may curse their politicians and ridicule their millionaires, but they rarely disparage the military.

The country’s independent news media can attack almost anything, but not the military. Two years ago, during a national bread shortage, Mubarak ordered military bakeries to produce subsidized bread.

It is the military’s support of Mubarak that has helped him stay in power since he became president in 1981 after the assassination of Sadat by Islamic militants.

But by entering the streets, bolstering the much reviled police, the army may jeopardize its standing with a new generation of young, educated Egyptians. That, however, wasn’t immediately apparent.

“We want the military to protect us!” chanted many protesters in Tahrir Square. “The police are beating us!”

Others yelled, “The army and the people are one hand!”

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Times staff writers Edmund Sanders in Cairo and Borzou Daragahi in Tunis, Tunisia, contributed to this report.


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