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Defiant Mubarak promises change, urges end to protests

Saying he remains devoted to protecting Egypt, a defiant President Hosni Mubarak vowed to change his Cabinet to help bring social, economic and political reforms to the country, but defended his security forces’ crackdown on anti-government protesters.

Mubarak called the protests, which seek his ouster after three decades in power, part of a plot to destabilize Egypt and destroy the legitimacy of his regime.

“I take responsibility for the safety of this country and the citizens,” Mubarak said in a televised address. “I will protect Egypt.”

Earlier Friday, a senior Egyptian military official decided to return, cutting short a visit to the United States as demonstrations continued to escalate, officials said.

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At a news conference at the Pentagon, Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, chief of staff of Egypt’s armed forces, was in the United States with a delegation for routine talks with military officials.

The talks were scheduled to extend into next week but Enan decided he needed to return to Egypt.

Police and protesters clashed across Egypt on Friday, and opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei was doused by a water cannon before escaping the batons of riot police and taking cover in a Cairo mosque.

Late in the day, army tanks and trucks flowed into Cairo, the capital, to augment the police. At least one building was on fire.

A 6 p.m.-to-dawn curfew was imposed, but it was ignored by many protesters, who remained in the streets well after dark. Sounds of gunfire could also be heard in downtown Cairo after dark.

In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, near the National Museum, protesters ignoring the curfew were swarming the area Friday night. Police had pulled back a few blocks to protect the parliament building.

Protesters set fires at the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party, and demonstrators were also seen trying to enter the Foreign Ministry and state TV headquarters. There was no major army presence in the area.

Late Friday, there was a heavy army and police presence around the presidential palace. Scores and scores of them standing shoulder-to-shoulder. They were diverting people in a wide circle around the palace.

Despite the curfew and the distant smell of tear gas, there were hundreds of people milling in the streets. They included families with children, people drinking coffee, chatting with police.

Protesters did not appear to be afraid. The mood seemed festive. Children were out playing soccer, a couple of wedding parties were attempting to celebrate despite all of the trouble elsewhere in the city.

At the airport, dozens of people remained stranded because of the curfew.

The chaos was a visceral sign that the government of Mubarak would confront even peaceful marches with tough, rapid force, including firing tear gas and concussion grenades. ElBaradei, who had been trying to lead a demonstration when he was forced inside, called the tactics “barbaric” and condemned the government for using “inhumane weapons.”

As he sat shaken and drenched, his eyes stinging from tear gas, ElBaradei, 68, said protesters had called for nonviolent change, “but I think that opportunity is over. It’s now the people versus the thugs.”

He added 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.”

In Washington, White House and State Department officials urged the Egyptian government to halt violent and repressive measures, and to take steps to begin sharing more power with the opposition.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the administration was “deeply concerned” by the government’s use of violence, and called on it to “do everything in its power to restrain security forces.”

She urged the government to allow peaceful protests, and to “reverse the unprecedented steps it has taken to cut off communications” used by the demonstrators, such as social media websites Facebook and Twitter.

The demonstrations “underscore that there are deep grievances within Egyptian society. The government needs to understand that violence will not make these grievances go away,” she said, calling on the Egyptian officials to “engage immediately” with the opposition.

Thousands of protesters swarmed the streets and boulevards of the capital, battling police on bridges as tear gas canisters popped overhead and hissed, splashing into the Nile River. Rocks and stones peppered the air and protesters covered their eyes with scarves and breathed in the odor from onions to block the scent of the tear gas. By late afternoon, protesters from all directions of the capital streamed toward Tahrir Square, where police waited.

“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. “We are rising now.”

As tear gas canisters bounced over the pavement, Abdel Zaher, 25, twitched and hunkered down.

“I was born under Mubarak, and it seems I might die while he’s still in power,” he said. “But, God willing, this protest will be endless.”

Through the day, protesters smashed armored police vehicles and battled authorities for hours. Television channels broadcast across the Arab world showed protesters in Cairo and the city of Sinai battling security forces armed with truncheons and tear gas.

The protesters demand an end to Mubarak’s rule, which they describe as corrupt, economically unjust and repressive. “The people want the fall of the regime,” they chanted in one piece of footage as they swarmed a major thoroughfare in what appeared to be Sinai.

Earlier video posted on the Internet, said to have been filmed in Cairo, showed huge crowds whistling, cheering and chanting “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great.”

“Leave, leave, Mubarak; Mubarak, the plane awaits you,” they chanted, in reference to the Jan. 14 flight of former Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine ben Ali, whose ouster after weeks of protests has inspired demonstrations across the Arab world.

Mubarak’s regime has responded to the protests this week with mostly non-lethal but brutal force, and by clamping down on the Internet..

The protesters have used websites such as Facebook and Twitter to organize rallies and YouTube to publicize them. Contacts in Egypt described a near total shutdown of the Internet on Friday as well as the jamming of satellite news channels such as Al Jazeera, which have broadcast video of the protests.

Activists also said land phone lines in some neighborhoods of Cairo had stopped working.

“Internet is blocked. Phone lines have been cut,” one activist in Cairo said on his Facebook page. “All major squares are armed with security. Security [is] preventing people from protesting, using heavy force. We’re at war…We’re at war.”

By all accounts, it has been a day unlike any Egypt has seen in the last few decades. “The skyline in Alexandria is filled of smoke, scenes of injured being rushed to hospital,” Al Jazeera reported on its Twitter page.

In Washington, Clinton said Egypt has “long been an important partner” for the United States, though she stopped short of praising the Mubarak administration, as President Obama did Thursday.

Philip J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, and Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, used Twitter to send out messages with similar themes.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

daragahi@latimes.com

Fleishman reported from Cairo and Daragahi from Tunis. Special correspondent Alexandra Sandels in Beirut and staff writer David S. Cloud in Washington contributed to this report.


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