CAIRO, Egypt – Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak dismissed his government but gave no sign in a defiant national television address early today that he would be driven from office by widespread protests that have shaken his security forces, killed at least 25 people, and left spirals of smoke across the capital.
His appearance shortly after midnight was an indication he believed his security forces and military had a tight grip on the country despite protests Friday that shut down much of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities. It highlighted the pivotal role the Egyptian military, long regarded as the quiet, stabilizing power behind the government, is likely to play in coming days.
“I take responsibility for the security of this country and its citizens,” Mubarak said. “I will not let this country live in fear. … I am dismissing the government and will appoint a new one.”
The statement was characteristic of Mubarak, a former air force officer who for three decades has crushed dissent and silenced opponents. It only briefly touched on the severe poverty, inflation, unemployment and other social problems that helped launch the protest movement.
“I know all the things people are asking. I’ve never been separated from them,” said the 82-year-old president, dressed in a dark suit and looking pale. “I will always be on the side of the poor.”
Those words alone are not likely to placate hundreds of thousands of protesters, who have braved tear gas, beatings, rubber bullets and water cannons while chanting “Down With Mubarak.”
Egyptians were emboldened to take to the streets by the revolt in Tunisia, where weeks of demonstrations ended President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 23 years in power earlier this month and forced him to flee the country. But unlike Tunisia, Egypt is at the heart of the Arab world and people across a region long frustrated by entrenched, corrupt leadership were gripped by images of pitched battles in the streets of Cairo.
And unlike Ben Ali, Mubarak did not flinch or offer concessions. Dismissing Cabinet ministers is likely to amount to little more than changing personalities while sticking to the ideology shared by the inner circle of the ruling party.
“It’s the same as if nothing has happened,” said Alaa Thabet, a protester in the center of Cairo, after Mubarak’s speech. “As long as he is in power, he will bring another government that will keep giving us the same bad policies.”
Demonstrators had swept across Egypt throughout the day as the country veered into anarchy. Protesters stormed the boulevards of Alexandria and Suez. In Cairo, they battled with police over a downtown bridge as tear gas canisters spiraled and hissed when splashing into the Nile. Bloodied demonstrators and police were carried away as crowds burned the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party and attempted to storm the Foreign Ministry and state TV. The army moved in to protect government buildings.
State television said 13 people were killed in Suez and several more in Cairo, adding to the toll from earlier in the week.
The breadth of the revolt was an indication that Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition party, could bring out large numbers when aligned with student activists and young professionals worried about their future.
After being sprayed with water cannon and stung by tear gas, ElBaradei, who for many has become the symbol for a new Egypt, said the crackdown on protesters revealed a “completely desperate” regime that had to be overthrown.
He bluntly challenged the U.S. and other Western allies of Mubarak that 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 residues of credibility they have in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.”
Early Friday, security forces had shut down the Internet and cell phone systems to disrupt Twitter and other social networks activists use to communicate. Swaths of Cairo, normally teeming with traffic, were nearly desolate, and then a crowd of protesters would swell across a street, turning back cars and blotting the horizon. The government imposed a curfew. Hotels advised tourists to stay in their rooms. Police arrested journalists and confiscated cameras.
“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, 25, hiding his face from plumes of tear gas outside a Cairo mosque. “We are rising now. I was born under Mubarak and it seems I might die while he’s still in power. But, God willing, this protest will be endless.”
By midnight, much of Cairo was calm. Despite a curfew and the distant smell of tear gas, hundreds of people including families with children milled around streets in the city center. Some people stopped for coffee; others chatted with police.
The focus turned to the meaning of Mubarak’s speech and the role of the military, which receives more than $1 billion in annual U.S. aid. Since Egypt’s independence from Britain in 1952, all three of the nation’s presidents – Gamal Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak – were military officers.
The imprint of the military’s influence is substantial, from museums, war memorials, officers clubs and industries that sprawl across the capital. Egyptians may curse their politicians and ridicule their millionaires, but they rarely disparage the military.
It is the military’s support of Mubarak that has helped keep him in power since he became president in 1981 following the assassination of Sadat by Islamic militants. But by entering the streets – bolstering the much reviled police – the army may jeopardize its standing with a new generation of young, educated Egyptians.