By Samer Al-Atrush
Agence France Press
CAIRO: Top dissident Mohamed ElBaradei told a sea of angry protesters in Cairo on Sunday that they were beginning a new era after six days of a deadly revolt against embattled President Hosni Mubarak.
But despite the anticipation of change, Mubarak ordered police back on the streets after they had largely disappeared over the past two days following street battles with protesters. He also extended a curfew in key cities.
Nobel peace laureate ElBaradei, mandated by Egyptian opposition groups including the banned Muslim Brotherhood to negotiate with Mubarak’s regime, hailed “a new Egypt in which every Egyptian lives in freedom and dignity.”
“We are on the right path, our strength is in our numbers,” ElBaradei said in his first address to the protest epicentre on Cairo’s Tahrir square. “I ask you to be patient, change is coming.”
“We will sacrifice our soul and our blood for the nation,” the angry crowd shouted. “The people want to topple the president.”
Brotherhood leaders Essam el-Erian and Saad el-Katatni, who walked out of prison earlier on Sunday after their guards fled, also addressed the crowd.
“They tried every way to stop the revolution of the people but we will be steadfast regardless of how many martyrs fall,” Erian said.
Six days of nationwide protest against Mubarak’s three-decade rule have shaken Egypt and left at least 125 people dead as the veteran leader clings to power.
A curfew slapped on Cairo, Alexandria and Suez on Friday was further extended on Sunday from 3:00 pm to 8:00 am, state television said, leaving citizens only eight hours a day to take to the street.
However, the curfew has so far been largely ignored, with protesters and looters both present on the streets after dark as the army began to tighten checkpoints around the city and search cars.
Mubarak has struggled to placate a nation angry at his three decades of autocratic rule with token gestures such as sacking the government.
Parliament speaker Fathi Surur on Sunday made another concession, saying the results of last year’s fraud-tainted parliamentary elections would be revised.
Several foreign governments said they would evacuate their nationals, while the United States authorized the departure of embassy families.
Mubarak on Sunday met with army brass seen as holding the key to his future as warplanes roared low over the downtown Cairo protest in an apparent show of force.
State television said he visited central military command where he met his newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, the military intelligence chief.
He also met outgoing defence minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and chief of staff Sami Enan.
Mubarak, a former air force chief, appeared to be bolstering his army support as he faces down the revolt which those driving it say will continue until he steps down.
Washington, a key ally of Egypt, called on Mubarak to do more to defuse the crisis but stopped short of saying he should quit.
But President Barack Obama also voiced support for “an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people,” in calls to regional leaders on Saturday, the White House said.
As Mubarak met the army chiefs, two Egyptian fighter jets flew repeated low-altitude sorties over Cairo, deafening the protest-hit city.
“Mubarak, go to Saudi Arabia,” the crowd shouted, encouraging the leader in power for 30 years to follow deposed Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile.
A banner in English read: “USA, why do you support the tyrant and not the people.”
A group of women shouted: “1, 2, where’s the people’s money?”
The National Coalition for Change, which groups several opposition movements including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, on Sunday charged ElBaradei with negotiating with the regime.
With fears of insecurity rising, thousands of convicts broke out of prisons across Egypt overnight after they overwhelmed guards or after prison personnel fled their posts.
An AFP correspondent saw 14 bodies in a mosque near Cairo’s Abu Zaabal prison, which a resident said were of two police and 12 convicts.
Troops set up checkpoints on roads to riot-hit prisons, stopping and searching cars for prisoners on the run.
Among those who escaped were senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as members of Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, some of whom made it back to the Gaza Strip through smuggling tunnels.
With rampant pillaging during the deadly protests, many Egyptians believe the police deliberately released prisoners in order to spread chaos and emphasize the need for the security forces.
“The government wants the people to think that Mubarak is the only option faced with the chaos,” said young demonstrator Sameh Kamal.
Groups of club-carrying vigilantes have deployed on Cairo’s streets to protect property from looters amid growing insecurity as the Arab world’s most populous nation faced an uncertain future.
Youths handed over suspected looters to the army, as police who had battled stone-throwing protesters in the first days of the demonstrations were hardly visible.
Many petrol stations are running out of fuel, motorists said, and many bank cash machines have either been looted or no longer work. Egyptian banks and the stock exchange were ordered closed on Sunday.
Mubarak on Saturday named Suleiman as his first-ever vice president and also a new premier, Ahmed Shafiq. Protesters dismissed the move as too little, too late.
Both men are stalwarts of Egypt’s all-powerful military establishment.
Suleiman, 75, has spearheaded years of Egyptian efforts to clinch an elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and tried so far in vain to mediate an inter-Palestinian reconciliation.
Shafiq, 69, is respected by the elite, even among the opposition, and has often been mooted as a potential successor to Mubarak.
In Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for an “orderly transition” in Egypt but stopped short of demanding that he step down.
Asked if Mubarak had taken sufficient steps to defuse Egypt’s worst crisis in decades by appointing a vice president and naming a new premier, Clinton told ABC: “Of course not.”
“That is the beginning, the bare beginning of what needs to happen, which is a process that leads to the kind of concrete steps to achieve democratic and economic reform that we’ve been urging.”
The Obama administration, she added, has not discussed cutting off aid to Egypt, a key Arab ally.
US military aid to Egypt amounts to $1.3 billion a year, and the total American aid bill to the country averages close to $2 billion annually.
In other developments on Sunday:
Outgoing information minister Anas al-Fikki ordered the closure of Al Jazeera’s operations in Egypt after the pan-Arab satellite channel gave blanket coverage to the riots.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is carefully watching developments, and its efforts are focused on maintaining the “stability and security” of the region.
The Rafah crossing between southern Gaza and Egypt was closed, a Palestinian official told AFP.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for “restraint, non-violence and respect for fundamental rights” in Egypt.
Stock markets slumped in several Gulf countries, where many leading firms have interests in Egypt, and Cairo’s bourse did not even open.