CAIRO, Egypt – 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.
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 until late Sunday, chanting anti-government slogans while army helicopters periodically flew overhead.
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.
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.
With few police 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.