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Egypt’s military moves to take control of parts of Cairo

Egypt’s military moved more aggressively Sunday to take control over parts of the capital, but the sixth day of unrest ended with increasing questions about how much longer President Hosni Mubarak could withstand calls for his resignation, including an electrifying demand from opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei that he step down to “save the country.”

Just hours after fighter jets buzzed overhead and a column of tanks tried to enter Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, thousands of protesters defied a government-imposed curfew to gather in a peaceful nighttime demonstration that culminated in the dramatic appearance by ElBaradei.

The opposition leader, who earlier in the day won a political endorsement from Egypt’s banned Muslim Brotherhood, promised protesters through a megaphone that “change is coming in the next few days.”

Although ElBaradei, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for his efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation, was said to have been under house arrest, there was confusion about whether those reports were accurate. He had not appeared in public since being doused with tear gas and water cannons during clashes last week.

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Sunday’s show of force by the military was seen as a sign that it could be preparing to crack down on protests to restore calm to Cairo and other cities. The chaos in the streets has shocked entrenched strongmen throughout the region, galvanized the Arab world and left about 100 people dead, according to Egyptian media.

In one brief but tense standoff, hundreds of protesters blocked army tanks from the downtown square, some sitting in front of their path and waving them off angrily. Protesters feared the military was preparing to cordon off an area that has become the heart of mass demonstration. The situation was defused when the tanks changed course and left.

Thousands of protesters continued to occupy the city center, chanting anti-government slogans while army helicopters periodically flew overhead. By early morning, hundreds of die-hard demonstrators were still dug in, and the army appeared to be allowing them to vent their frustrations.

In a move applauded by many government critics, the military seized control of the headquarters of the much-reviled Interior Ministry, whose police officers had been recalled from duty since violently clashing with protesters last week.

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But there were reports late Sunday that the Interior Ministry had begun redeploying police officers in the city.

Earlier in the day, state television showed Mubarak meeting with military leaders and newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman to discuss the security situation. Many expect the military to play a critical role in the coming days.

In Washington, top Pentagon officials spoke by telephone with their Egyptian counterparts on the crisis.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates spoke to Egyptian Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, who would not provide details of their conversation.

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Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also spoke with Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, the chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces.

In the 10-minute call, “both men reaffirmed their desire to see the partnership between our two militaries continue,” said Capt. John Kirby, Mullen’s spokesman. Egypt receives more than $1 billion in U.S. aid annually.

Also Sunday, the State Department said it will begin evacuation flights for thousands of U.S. citizens in Egypt on Monday. The department has chartered planes for the evacuation, and believes it has the capacity to accommodate all who wish to go.

The unrest sweeping through the region has left entrenched Arab leaders with the uneasy sense that someone is dancing on their graves. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Syrian strongman Bashar Assad acknowledged a “new era” and vowed to push for political reforms in his country.

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With few police officers on the streets, most Cairo residents spent a fitful night gripped by fears of looting and reports of several prison breakouts, unleashing thousands of criminals. Neighborhood vigilante squads quickly rose up throughout Cairo, blocking off residential roads and protecting homes with baseball bats, golf putters, meat cleavers and anything else they could find.

Some stores ran out of bread as panicked residents hoarded food in case the chaos worsened. Egyptian media reported that the military had arrested nearly 500 people in Cairo since the looting began.

Some residents were calling for an end to the protests, even if it meant allowing Mubarak to remain in power.

“We don’t want this chaos,” Romi Magedeldeen, 26, said as he rushed home with loads of groceries for his family. Last week, he participated in the protests, but now, he said, he wants the demonstrations to stop.

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As gunshots rang out in the distance, Magedeldeen said, “That’s enough for now. We have a new government and a new vice president. If this continues, it’s going to be worse here than in Iraq.”

Others seemed emboldened by the withdrawal earlier of the capital’s police force, saying ordinary citizens and the military were showing they could do a better job.

Around the city, young men replaced traffic cops in directing cars. A line of volunteers linked arms around the Egyptian Museum entrance to protect it from vandals.

Many citizens took it upon themselves to chase down anyone suspected of breaking the law. At midmorning near the Supreme Court, a minivan filled with one vigilante squad screeched to a halt in front of a military outpost, dragged out a bloodied escaped prisoner they had caught in their neighborhood and turned him over to soldiers.

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“This crisis has brought out the best of people and the worst of people,” said Hesham Elshazly, 46, an engineer who was camped out Sunday with five neighbors in front of their 21-story apartment building. Around them were piles of bricks, Molotov cocktails, fire extinguishers, cans of insect repellent and other weapons they planned to use to fend off would-be robbers.

“The government thought by removing the police they would prove that we couldn’t protect ourselves, but now you can see that we’re all right,” said Amad Sami, a dermatologist who lives in the same building.

Protesters remained largely supportive of the military taking a larger role in providing security. When the tanks rolled into Tahrir Square in the early afternoon, protesters initially greeted them like liberators, tossing oranges and applauding.

But some expressed concerns that the army might be preparing to crack down.

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“I’m worried,” said Fady Medhat, 25, a bank clerk. “It’s not clear what the army is trying to do. There is no clear direction yet.”

Fears about rising crime led some protesters to skip Sunday’s protests and stay home to protect their property. But many others said they were joining the demonstrations for the first time Sunday because of the absence of violence that had characterized earlier clashes.

“Before I didn’t feel safe, but after I saw on television that everything was OK, I decided to come out today,” said Omar Mustafa, 58, an insurance broker in a gray suit and tie.

In Tahrir Square, demonstrators appeared to be settling in for a long night. Volunteers fanned out with plastic containers of rice and soup. “They want to stay, and we want to help them,” said Mostafa Shalabi, hefting a case of mineral water.

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Banks, schools and Egypt’s stock exchange remained closed. Businesses complained that the government’s shutdown of Internet service in Cairo was costing them millions of dollars.

At Cairo International Airport, the normally chaotic arrivals hall was all but deserted. Outside the departure area, by contrast, huge crowds formed, hoping for a flight out. Some people sat wearily on their suitcases; babies wailed.

“All the violence, all this shooting, looting, robbing — I want to leave,” said George Shafik, a 16-year-old from the well-to-do Cairo suburb of Heliopolis.

A large contingent of expatriate employees and dependents of Shell Oil queued up outside the terminal as well. They said they had been ordered out by the company.

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edmund.sanders@latimes.com

Times staff writers Laura King in Cairo and David S. Cloud and Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.


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