CAIRO – Amid an accelerating breakdown of law and order across Egypt’s capital, anti-government protesters have set the stage for a potentially explosive new confrontation by declaring that today, the main prayer day of the Muslim week, is the deadline for the beleaguered president to step aside.
As volleys of gunfire echoed through the city’s heart Thursday, senior government officials offered a flurry of political concessions, seeking to placate protesters calling for President Hosni Mubarak to step down.
But Mubarak, 82, has refused to cede power, even in the face of strong prodding by the White House to ease tensions quickly.
He told ABC News on Thursday that there would be “chaos” if he acceded to demonstrators’ demands and asserted that his departure would pave the way for a takeover by Islamists.
Mubarak has already said he will not seek re-election in September, but protest leaders have rejected the idea of him staying on in the meantime.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, was in talks with top Egyptian officials about the possibility of Mubarak immediately resigning and the formation of an interim government that could prepare the country for free and fair elections later this year, U.S. officials said Thursday. The talks were first reported by the New York Times.
The creation of a military-backed caretaker government in Egypt is one of several ideas being discussed as anti-Mubarak protests escalate in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, said the officials.
Among those options is a proposal for Mubarak to resign immediately and cede power to a transitional government run by Vice President Omar Suleiman.
White House and State Department spokesmen would not discuss details of the discussions U.S. officials are having with the Egyptians.
“The president has said that now is the time to begin a peaceful, orderly and meaningful transition,” said White House national security spokesman Tommy Vietor on Thursday night. “We have discussed with the Egyptians a variety of different ways to move that process forward.”
On Thursday, battles raged for hours near the banks of the Nile River, with anti-Mubarak demonstrators spilling out of their stronghold of nearby Tahrir Square and pushing back pro-Mubarak elements who had attacked the plaza a day earlier. The army moved decisively for the first time to separate the rival camps, but its efforts were often ineffectual. Fierce fighting spread into surrounding streets.
Speaking on state television, Mubarak’s newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, appeared to reach out to the protesters, thanking them for initiating a push for reform and reiterating an offer to negotiate with the Muslim Brotherhood, a driving force behind the protest movement. Suleiman also said Mubarak’s son Gamal, whom many expected the president to try to install as his heir, would not seek election either.
And in unusual move, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq publicly apologized for Wednesday’s violence, saying its instigators would be punished. “This issue will not be forgotten, will not go away just like that,” said Shafiq.
The government has denied involvement in Wednesday’s seemingly well-coordinated onslaught by pro-Mubarak partisans against protesters camped in the square. Leaders of the protest contend that the attacking force included plainclothes police, common criminals and paid thugs.
Signaling a widening campaign of intimidation, suspected pro-Mubarak elements on Thursday harassed human rights workers and targeted foreign journalists, roughing up some reporters while dozens of others were detained by authorities. That crackdown followed assertions by state-run television that the foreign media have been unduly sympathetic to the protest movement.
Foreign tourists and residents continued to flee in the thousands, braving a gantlet of vigilante checkpoints to get to the international airport.
Unlike the generally friendly neighborhood patrols that appeared earlier this week, some of the new checkpoints were manned by angry young men who swarmed around cars they considered suspicious. At one such checkpoint, men in civilian clothes forced three foreigners out of their car and searched their bags and the car trunk. They demanded to inspect passports and searched for cameras.
“Foreigners have been stirring up a lot of trouble here,” said a uniformed police officer who was supervising the young men at one downtown checkpoint.
Thursday’s street battles were smaller in scope than those a day earlier, but were nonetheless fierce – and frightening for those caught up in the clashes.