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Egypt in crisis, Mubarak meets commanders

Mubarak meets high command; Interior Ministry guarded by army armoured vehicles; Heavy military presence replaces police; Vigilantes protect Cairo buildings from mobs of looters.

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January 30, 2011 3:07 by



ARMY KEY TO EGYPT’S FUTURE

The protests bore many hallmarks of the unrest that toppled the leader of Tunisia two weeks ago, although the arrival of army troops to replace the police showed that Mubarak still has the support of the military, the country’s most powerful force.

So far, the protest movement seems to have no clear leader or organisation even if Mubarak did wish to open a dialogue.

Prominent activist Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Laureate for his work with the U.N. nuclear agency, returned to Egypt from Europe to join the protests. But many Egyptians feel he has not spent enough time in the country.

The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist opposition group, has also stayed in the background, although several of its senior officials have been rounded up. The government has accused it of planning to exploit the protests.

Thirty-four members of the Brotherhood, including seven of its leaders, walked out of prison on Sunday after relatives of prisoners overcame the guards, a Brotherhood official said.

The relatives stormed the prison in Wadi el-Natroun, 120 km (80 miles) northwest of Cairo, and set free several thousand of the inmates, Brotherhood office manager Mohamed Osama told Reuters. No one was hurt, he added.

Army tanks and tracked vehicles stood at the capital’s street corners, guarding banks as well as government offices and the Interior Ministry headquarters. State security fought with protesters trying to attack the building on Saturday night.

The tumult was effecting Egypt’s tourist industry and the United States and Turkey said they were offering evacuation flights for citizens anxious to leave. Other governments advised their citizens to leave Egypt or to avoid travelling there.

Cairo airport was jammed with passengers eager to get out of the troubled country.

Egypt said it had shut down the operations of satellite broadcaster Al Jazeera which has shown footage of the demonstrations taking place in Cairo, Suez and Alexandria and heavy-handed police tactics to the rest of the Arab world.

The government has interfered with Internet access and mobile phone signals to try and disrupt demonstrators’ plans. Twitter messages on Sunday were urging Egyptians to assemble at Tahrir Square to resume their anti-Mubarak message.

The United States and European powers were busy reworking their Middle East policies, which have supported Mubarak, turning a blind eye to police brutality and corruption in return for a bulwark against first communism and now militant Islam.

In Cairo, the biggest immediate fear was of looting as public order collapsed. Mobs stormed banks, supermarkets, jewellery shops and government offices. Some suggested the chaos could herald a security forces crackdown.

In surreal scenes, soldiers from Mubarak’s army stood by tanks covered in anti-Mubarak graffiti: “Down with Mubarak. Down with the despot. Down with the traitor. Pharaoh out of Egypt.”

Asked how they could let protesters write anti-Mubarak slogans on their vehicles, one soldier said: “These are written by the people, it’s the views of the people.”

Residents expressed hope the troops would restore order. “People are terrified from these outlaws on the streets looting, attacking and destroying,” said Salah Khalife, an employee at a sugar company.

“This is the Arab world’s Berlin moment,” said Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics, comparing the events to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “The authoritarian wall has fallen, and that’s regardless of whether Mubarak survives.”

(By Shaimaa Fayed and Yasmine Saleh. Additional reporting by Dina Zayed, Marwa Awad, Shaimaa Fayed, Sherine El Madany, Yasmine Saleh, Alison Williams and Samia Nakhoul in Cairo, Alexander Dziadosz in Suez, Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Peter Apps, Angus MacSwan and William Maclean in London; Writing by Peter Millership, editing by Sonya Hepinstall)



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