Lawlessness in Egypt as Mubarak clings on

Looted stores, burnt out cars and the stench of blazing tyres filled the streets of Cairo early on Sunday as President Hosni Mubarak sought to bargain with angry crowds and security forces struggled to contain looters.

In five days of unprecedented protests that have rocked the Arab world, more than 100 people have been killed, investors and tourists have taken fright, Mubarak has offered a first glimpse of a plan to step down and 80-million long-suffering Egyptians are caught between hope for democratic reform and fear of chaos.

The United States and European powers were busy tearing up their Middle East policies, which have supported Mubarak at the head of the most populous Arab nation for 30 years, turning a blind eye to police brutality and corruption in return for a solid bulwark against first communism and now militant Islam.

The biggest immediate fear was of looting as all public order broke down. Mobs stormed into supermarkets, banks, jewellry shops and government buildings. Thieves at the Egyptian Museum damaged two mummies from the time of the pharaohs.

“They are letting Egypt burn to the ground,” said Inas Shafik (35).

On Saturday, the 82-year-old Mubarak bowed to protesters and named a vice-president for the first time, a move seen as lining up Omar Suleiman, hitherto his chief of intelligence, as an eventual successor, at least for a transition. Many also saw it as ending his son Gamal’s long-surmised ambitions to take over.

Fearful of a descent into anarchy, some Egyptians may have been reassured by signs Mubarak may be readying a handover of power within the military establishment.

But those on the streets of Cairo, a teeming megalopolis of 15-million that is the biggest city in the Middle East, have scented weakness and remain impatient for Mubarak to go now.

“This is not acceptable. Mubarak must step down. Public unrest will not stop until this is achieved,” Mohammed Essawy, a 26-year-old graduate student, said of the appointments.

In Washington, State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley said: “The Egyptian government can’t reshuffle the deck and then stand pat.”

Since protesters toppled Tunisia’s leader two weeks ago, demonstrations have spread across north Africa and the Middle East in an unprecedented wave of anger at authoritarian leaders, many of them entrenched for decades and enjoying US support.

“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.”

As in Tunisia, Egypt’s exploding young population, most of then underemployed and frustrated by oppression at the hands of a corrupt and rapacious elite, were demanding a full clear-out of the old guard, not just a reshuffle of the governing class.

Police shot dead 17 people in Bani Suef, south of Cairo, as street battles intensified in some towns, even as police seemed to leave much of Cairo to the army, an institution generally respected by Egyptians and less associated with oppression.

According to various estimates more than 100 people have been killed during the week in Egypt’s capital and other cities.

On the Corniche promenade alongside the River Nile in Cairo, people stayed out after the curfew deadline, standing by tanks and chatting with soldiers who took no action to disperse them.

At one point, dozens of people approached a military cordon carrying a sign reading “Army and People Together”. Soldiers pulled back and let the group through: “There is a curfew,” one lieutenant said. “But the army isn’t going to shoot anyone.”

Still, while many defied the curfew in a sign of political defiance, others took the opportunity to roam for booty.

Civilian vigilantes stepped in to fill the void left by a vanished police force.

“There are no police to be found anywhere,” said Ghadeer (23) from an upscale neighbourhood. “Doormen and young boys from the neighbourhoods are standing outside holding sticks, razors and other weapons to prevent people from coming in.”

‘Beginning of the end’
While clearly anxious to avoid an anarchic collapse that might destabilise a region vital to world oil supplies, Mubarak’s allies in Western governments appear to share a sense that what has happened so far does not go far enough.

In Europe, the German, French and British leaders issued a joint statement thanking Mubarak for his contribution to stability in the Middle East — Egypt led the way in agreeing to a peace with Israel — but demanding that he now start the move to free elections, a move that would certainly end his power.

Of Suleiman’s appointment, analyst Gamal Abdel Gawad Soltan said: “This is the beginning of a process of power transfer.”

At the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jon Alterman said: “I can’t see how this is not the beginning of the end of Mubarak’s presidency. It seems that his task now is to try and manage the transition past his leadership.”

If the plan is for Mubarak to hand power to Suleiman, it remains to be seen whether the population would tolerate him.

“He is just like Mubarak, there is no change,” one protester said of Suleiman, a key figure at the top of Mubarak’s inner circle and hated security apparatus.

The prospect of even greater upheaval across the Middle East is prompting some investors to see risks for oil supplies that could in turn hamper global economic growth.

Many saw Mubarak’s concessions as echoes of those made two weeks ago by Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Just a day later, Ben Ali had fled his country, deserted by an army which preferred to back less hated figures in his government.

Like other Arab leaders, the president portrays himself as a bulwark against the West’s Islamist enemies. But Egypt’s banned opposition movement the Muslim Brotherhood has been only a small part of the week’s events, and lays claim to moderation.

“A new era of freedom and democracy is dawning in the Middle East,” Kamel El-Helbawy, a cleric from the Brotherhood said from exile in London. “Islamists would not be able to rule Egypt alone. We should and would cooperate.”

Army’s moment
While the police are generally feared as an instrument of repression, the army is seen as a national institution.

Rosemary Hollis, at London’s City University, said the army had to decide whether it stood with Mubarak or the people: “It’s one of those moments where as with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe they can come down to individual lieutenants and soldiers to decide whether they fire on the crowd or not.”

So far, the protest movement seems to have no clear leader or organisation. Prominent activist Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate for his work with the UN nuclear agency, returned to Egypt from Europe to join the protests. But many Egyptians feel he has not spent enough time in the country.

“Hosni Mubarak has not heard the people,” ElBaradei told al-Jazeera, renewing his call for the president to step down.

Banks will be shut on Sunday as “a precaution”, Central Bank Governor Hisham Ramez told Reuters. The stock market, whose benchmark index tumbled 16% in two days before shutting on Friday for the weekend, will also be closed on Sunday. – Reuters

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