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EGYPT: Mubarak meets with military as opposition leader joins protesters

January 30, 2011 |  9:37 am

Embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, facing massive protests demanding an end to his 30-year rule, met with military officials Sunday as opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei addressed protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

“The people want the regime to fall,” protesters chanted as ElBaradei walked to the center of the square, holding hands with some demonstrators, Reuters reported.

"What we have begun cannot go back," ElBaradei told the crowd.

Earlier in the day, ElBaradei said he was determined to negotiate the creation of a new government.

“Mubarak has to leave today,” he told CNN.

“I have been authorized -- mandated -- by the people who organized these demonstrations and many other parties to agree on a national unity government. I hope that I should be in touch soon with the army and we need to work together. The army is part of Egypt.”

As many as 10,000 people protested in Tahrir Square Sunday, rallying against poverty, repression, unemployment and corruption.

As a government curfew started and was ignored, warplanes and helicopters flew over the square. By late afternoon more army trucks appeared in a show of military force, but no one moved.

“Hosni Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, both of you are agents of the Americans,” shouted protesters, referring to the appointment on Saturday of intelligence chief Suleiman as vice president, the first time Mubarak, 82, has appointed a deputy.

Many saw the appointment as ending his son Gamal's long-predicted ambitions to take over and as an attempt to reshape the administration to placate reformists.

Mubarak held talks with Suleiman, Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Chief of Staff Sami al-Anan and others.

Clearly those in Tahrir Square did not wish to see Mubarak's ruling structure replaced by a military lineup featuring his closest associates. “Mubarak, Mubarak, the plane awaits,” they chanted.

The military response to the crisis has been ambivalent. Troops now guard key buildings after police lost control of the streets, but have neglected to enforce the curfew, often fraternizing with protesters rather than confronting them.

It remains to be seen if the armed forces will keep Mubarak in power, or decide he is a liability. It was also unclear if Mubarak had decided to talk with the generals or if he was summoned by them.

In Suez, on the canal, one senior local officer, Brigadier Atef Said said his troops would give protesters a free voice:

“We will allow protests in the coming days,” he told Reuters. “Everyone has the right to voice their opinion. We're listening and trying to help and satisfy all parties. We're not here to stop anyone. These are our people.”

As the crisis deepened on Sunday, Cairo residents armed with clubs, chains and knives formed vigilante groups to guard neighborhoods from marauders after the unpopular police force withdrew following the deadly clashes with protesters.

As a result, the army has deployed in bigger numbers across Egypt, easing some of the panic. In central Cairo, army checkpoints were set up at some intersections.

Residents expressed hope the army, revered in Egypt and less associated with daily repression than the police and security forces, would restore order.

Army tanks and tracked vehicles stood at the capital's street corners, guarding banks as well as government offices, including Interior Ministry headquarters.

In surreal scenes, soldiers from Mubarak's army stood by tanks covered in anti-Mubarak graffiti: “Down with Mubarak. Down with the despot. Down with the traitor. Pharaoh out of Egypt.”

Asked how they could let protesters scrawl anti-Mubarak slogans on their vehicles, one soldier said: “These are written by the people, it's the views of the people.”

Egypt's sprawling armed forces -- the world's 10th biggest and more than 468,000-strong -- have been at the heart of power since army officers staged the 1952 overthrow of the king. It benefits from about $1.3 billion a year in U.S. military aid.


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-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Photo: In this still image taken from video, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak attends a meeting in Cairo on Jan. 30, 2011. Credit: Egyptian State TV / Reuters