Egyptian protesters defy curfew and return to streets

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Saying Egypt's president must go, thousands defied the government's curfew and filled the streets and squares of downtown Cairo today in a resounding rejection of the longtime leader's attempt to hang onto power with promises of reform and a new government.

Tanks and armored personnel carriers fanned out across the city of 18 million, guarding key government buildings. But the curfew was largely ignored — by the looters who ran rampant, by protesters, and apparently by soldiers under orders to enforce it. Police opened fired on the demonstrators around the area of Tahrir Square after thousands tried to storm the Interior Ministry. At least three were killed and their bodies were carried through the crowd of protesters.

The death toll since the largest anti-government protests in decades began Tuesday rose to 48, according to medical and security officials and witnesses at the demonstration. Of those, 41 have been killed since Friday. Some 2,000 injuries have been reported.

In the city's main Tahrir Square, at the center of today's massive demonstration, there was only a light military presence — a few tanks — and soldiers are not intervening. Few police were seen in the crowds and the protest began peacefully. Then police opened fire on some in the crowd near the Interior Ministry and a number of them were wounded by gunshots. It was not clear whether they used rubber bullets or live ammunition.

One army captain joined the demonstrators, who hoisted him on their shoulders while chanting slogans against President Hosni Mubarak. The officer ripped a picture of the president.

"We don't want him! We will go after him!" demonstrators shouted. They decried looting and sabotage, saying: "Those who love Egypt should not sabotage Egypt!"

There have been no clashes reported between the military and the protesters, and many seem to feel the army is with them. On one tank was scrawled black graffiti: "Down with Mubarak."

In contrast, protesters have scorned police, who are hated for their brutality.

Yesterday, 17 police stations throughout Cairo were torched, with protesters stealing firearms and ammunition and setting some jailed suspects free. They also burned dozens of police trucks in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez.

Today, protesters besieged a police station in the Giza neighborhood of Cairo, looted and pulled down Egyptian flags before burning the building to the ground.

The military was protecting major tourist and archaeological sites such as the Egyptian Museum, home to some of the country's most treasured antiquities, as well as the Cabinet building. The pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo — Egypt's premiere tourist site — were closed by the military to tourists.

Yesterday, protesters burned down the headquarters of Mubarak's political party along the Nile and set fire to many other buildings, roaming the streets of downtown Cairo in defiance of a night curfew enforced by the army. There was also widespread looting of supermarkets, shopping malls, casinos and offices of cell phone companies.

The demonstrators were not satisfied with Mubarak's actions to address the discontent. The president of 30 years fired his Cabinet late Friday night and promised reforms, which many doubt he will deliver.

"What we want is for Mubarak to leave, not just his government," Mohammed Mahmoud, a demonstrator in the city's main Tahrir Square, said today. "We will not stop protesting until he goes."

Mubarak, confronted with the most dire threat to his three decades of authoritarian rule, faced his nation for the first time since the unrest began. In a televised address at midnight, he made vague promises of social reform in what is likely to be interpreted as an attempt to cling to power rather than a genuine pledge solve Egypt's pressing problems.

He also defended his security forces and accused the protesters of plotting to destabilize Egypt and destroy the legitimacy of his regime, outraging those still in the streets well into the night.

"We want Mubarak to go and instead he is digging in further," protester Kamal Mohammad said. "He thinks it is calming down the situation but he is just angering people more."

Zahi Hawass, Egypt's top archaeologist, meanwhile, told state television on Saturday that he was "seriously concerned" about the safety of the capital's famed Egyptian Museum. Neighboring buildings were gutted by fires on Friday night, and he feared they would collapse and damage the museum, home to the treasures of king Tutankamun and other priceless artifacts.

Buildings, statues and even armored security vehicles were covered in anti-Mubarak graffiti, including the words "Mubarak must fall," which by morning had been written over to say "Mubarak fell."

As the protests entered their fifth day, the military extended a night curfew imposed Friday in the three major cities where the worst violence has been seen — Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. State television reported the curfew would begin at 4 p.m. and last until 8 a.m., longer than the 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. ban Friday night that appeared to not have been enforced.

Internet appeared blocked for a second day to hamper protesters who use social networking sites to organize. And after cell phone service was cut for a day Friday, two of the country's major providers were up and running Saturday.

In the capital on Friday night, hundreds of young men carted away televisions, fans and stereo equipment looted from the ruling National Democratic Party, near the Egyptian Museum. Young men formed a human barricade in front of the museum to protect one of Egypt's most important tourist attractions.

Others around the city looted banks, smashed cars, tore down street signs and pelted armored riot police vehicles with paving stones torn from roadways.

After years of simmering discontent in this nation where protests are generally limited, Egyptians were emboldened to take to the streets by the uprising in Tunisia — another North African Arab nation.

But a police crackdown drew harsh criticism from the Obama administration and even a threat Friday to reduce a $1.5 billion foreign aid program if Washington's most important Arab ally escalates the use of force.

Stepping up the pressure, President Barack Obama told a news conference he called Mubarak immediately after his TV address and urged the Egyptian leader to take "concrete steps" to expand rights and refrain from violence against protesters.

"The United States will continue to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people and work with their government in pursuit of a future that is more just, more free and more hopeful," Obama said.

Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, speaking on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, said Saturday he believes Mubarak had to do more.

"Dismissing the government doesn't speak to some of those challenges," he said. "I think he's got to speak more to the real issues that people feel," he said. "Dismissing the government doesn't speak to some of those challenges."

On Friday massive crowds numbering in the tens of thousands overwhelmed police forces in Cairo and other cities, attacking them with rocks and firebombs. The primary weapons of police have been tear gas, batons and sticks. They have also fired rubber bullets and used water cannons.

In a clear sign that things had spiraled out of police control, Mubarak called in the military by Friday night to enforce the night curfew. Late at night, there were scenes of armored personnel carriers filled with troops rolling slowly down the picturesque corniche along the Nile, thronged by cheering crowds.

In Tahrir Square, streets were littered with debris, glass, rocks and garbage and what appeared to be bullet casings. Charred fire engines and police trucks still smoldered. Fire engines tried to extinguish a fire in the building housing the government press monitor next to the Egyptian Museum.

Protesters attacked riot police with stones as they tried to enter the square, and officers responded with a barrage of tear gas and rubber bullets.

Some protesters were wearing T-shirts with "Down with Mubarak" emblazoned on their fronts. Others chanted: "The people want to topple the regime."

Not far from the square, the army sealed off the road leading to the parliament and Cabinet buildings.

Along the Nile, smoke was still billowing from the ruling party's headquarters, which protesters set ablaze during Friday's unrest, the most dramatic day of protests since the unrest began on Tuesday.

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