Egypt protesters defy curfew; Baradei says no going back


Cairo : Anti-government demonstrators defied a curfew to protest Monday morning in Egypt’s capital, demanding President Hosny Mubarak step down from office after three decades of rule.

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Leading opposition activist Mohammed ElBaradei had earlier Sunday promised tens of thousands of protesters that change would come to their country, as they staged a sixth day of demonstrations in Cairo and other cities.

“What we have begun today cannot be turned back,” the Nobel Peace Prize winner told the crowd in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square through a megaphone on what he termed an “historic day”.

“We are beginning a new era in Egypt,” said ElBaradei. He is trying to organise the opposition, but faces some scepticism, largely owing to his many years outside the country, including at the helm of the UN’s nuclear watchdog.

A few hundred protesters remained in Tahrir Square into Monday morning despite a curfew and severe government-ordered disruptions to phone and internet services. But their numbers had dwindled and the protests remained peaceful, according to satellite television broadcaster al-Jazeera.

The US, Egypt’s key ally, said it expected events in Egypt to lead to a “transition”, ending with democratic elections, as President Barack Obama consulted with key leaders in the region. But ElBaradei said Washington was losing credibility by not more staunchly supporting change in Cairo.

Gamal Nasser, a spokesman for the largest opposition grouping, the Muslim Brotherhood, said his group was in talks with ElBaradei and other movements to form a national unity government without President Hosny Mubarak or his ruling National Democratic Party.

The Brotherhood, banned but tolerated under Mubarak, also demanded an end to the country’s draconian emergency laws, which grant police wide-ranging powers.

Protesters, most not affiliated to any party or movement, poured into city centres all over Egypt, from remote areas such as Mansoura in the north to Alexandria, the second largest city, in the west.

“We will not go until Mubarak goes,” was one of many anti-government chants heard in Cairo and other scenes of protests in the vast and largely poor country of 80 million people.

A simpler form of the slogan said simply “Leave” and was handwritten on placards and pieces of paper held up by demonstrators.

The city was relatively quiet overnight. Shots could be heard in some of Egypt’s residential neighbourhoods into Monday morning, though there was also a greater military presence keeping security in many quarters.

Residents in big cities formed neighbourhood watch groups in an effort to protect their families and property from looters. Some of these groups even arrested vandals. More groups were formed for Sunday night, but looting and violence was down.

In the chaos, thousands of prisoners were said to have escaped detention facilities in different areas of the country and had become one of the greatest security concerns for many residents. At least four prisons in Cairo had break outs.

They included political prisoners – the Muslim Brotherhood said 38 members of its group were released Sunday – but witnesses also said they feared violent offenders were out on the streets.

One witness described two men with blood on their shirts roaming Cairo’s wealthy Damalek neighbourhood. They were handed over by a local watch group to the military.

At least 150 people have died so far in violence linked to the unrest.

In the early evening Sunday military fighter jets and army helicopters buzzed low overhead in a show of force as the protesters chanted. Tanks were also surrounding demonstration areas, though the soldiers did not interfere with the protests.

Police, pushed from the streets Friday night after clashes with protesters, were back in parts of Cairo after dark Sunday, with the interior ministry pledging they would be fully re-deployed by morning.

Obama telephoned the leaders of Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Britain, telling his counterparts that the US backed “an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people”, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on morning talk shows for the first time called for “free and fair elections” and an “orderly transition” in Egypt, ruled for the last three decades by Mubarak, though she stopped short of calling for Mubarak to step down.

Mubarak – who spent the morning visiting troops, according to state television – has so far reshuffled some top positions and vaguely pledged better economic prospects and freedoms. He later met with military and other officials over new the cabinet appointments.

Importantly, he appointed his former intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, as vice president – a post that has been vacant for nearly three decades – but many who headed to the streets said it was not enough.

The unrest has caused foreigners to flee in droves, with Western and Arab states saying they will arrange special flights to evacuate their citizens. A great crush was being reported at Cairo airport.

The looting has caused divisions within Egypt, as concern for safety has roused some citizens to confront protesters, demanding an end to the chaos.

There was damage to artefacts at the Egyptian Museum, including to items from the King Tutankhamun exhibit, but it remained limited to one section of the building, officials said. Officers from the much despised police force were blamed for this and other attacks.

Internet connections across most of the country remained shut off and al-Jazeera said its Arabic service was forced by the government to close its Cairo bureau.