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Mubarak digs in heels, protests continue

on 11/01/2019

Embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is digging in his heels after defying a week of massive protests calling for him to step down immediately and saying instead he would not seek re-election in September.

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The veteran president’s announcement on television late on Tuesday drew angry jeers from demonstrators who again defied a curfew to spend the night in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – epicentre of eight straight days of protests.

Mubarak’s halfway concession threatened to inflame frustration and anger among protesters, who have been peaceful in recent days.

The protesters, whose numbers multiplied more than tenfold in a single day on Tuesday for their biggest rally yet, have insisted they will not end their unprecedented wave of unrest until their ruler for nearly three decades goes.

In the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, clashes erupted between several hundred protesters and government supporters soon afterward, according to footage by Al-Jazeera television.

The protesters threw stones at their rivals, who wielded knives and sticks, until soldiers fired in the air and stepped in between them, said a local journalist, Hossam el-Wakil.

The speech was immediately derided by protesters in Tahrir Square. Watching on a giant TV, protesters booed and waved their shoes over their heads at his image in a sign of contempt.

US President Barack Obama, who spoke to Mubarak after the speech, went on television to say he had told the Egyptian president that an orderly transition needed to begin immediately. “What is clear, and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now,” Obama said.

Obama said at the White House that Mubarak “recognises that the status quo is not sustainable and a change must take place”.

Obama also made a gesture towards those who reacted angrily to Mubarak’s speech.

“To the people of Egypt, particularly the young people of Egypt, I want to be clear, we hear your voices. I have an unyielding belief that you will determine your own destiny,” Obama said at the White House.

Earlier on Tuesday, a visiting Obama envoy – former ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner – met with Mubarak and made clear to him that it is the US “view that his tenure as president is coming to a close,” according to an administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The United States has been struggling to find a way to ease Mubarak out of office while maintaining stability in Egypt, a key ally in the Mideast that has a 30-year-old peace treaty with Israel and has been a bulwark against Islamic militancy.

In Mubarak’s 10-minute address, the 82-year-old appeared sombre but spoke firmly and without an air of defeat.

He insisted that even if the protests had never happened, he would not have sought a sixth term in September. Mubarak, a former air force commander, vowed not to flee the country.

“This is my dear homeland … I have lived in it, I fought for it and defended its soil, sovereignty and interests. On its soil I will die. History will judge me and all of us.”

Tuesday’s protest marked a dramatic escalation that organisers said aims to drive Mubarak out by Friday, with more than 250,000 people flooding into Tahrir, or Liberation, Square.

Similar demonstrations erupted in at least five other cities around Egypt. Soldiers at checkpoints set up at the entrances of the square did nothing to stop the crowds from entering.

The military promised on state television on Monday night that it would not fire on protesters answering a call for a million people to demonstrate, a sign that army support for Mubarak may be unravelling.

Meanwhile, more than 18,000 foreigners converged on Cairo International Airport on Tuesday, frantic for a way out.

EgyptAir staff scuffled with frantic passengers, food supplies were dwindling and some policemen even demanded substantial bribes before allowing foreigners to board their planes.

The Australian government has organised two evacuation flights for the hundreds of Australians fleeing Egypt, and says it will provide more flights if needed. The first plane was due to leave Cairo for Frankfurt on Wednesday (early Thursday morning AEDT) carrying 412 Australians, while the second flight was expected to depart the next day.

The United States ordered nonessential US government personnel and their families to leave Egypt.

Banks, schools and the stock market in Cairo were closed for the third working day on Tuesday, making cash tight. An unprecedented shutdown of the internet was in its fifth day.

The official death toll from the crisis stood at 97, with thousands injured, though reports from witnesses across the country indicated the actual toll was far higher.

The movement to drive Mubarak out has been built on the work of online activists and fuelled by deep frustration with an autocratic regime blamed for ignoring the needs of the poor and allowing corruption and official abuse to run rampant.

After years of tight state control, protesters emboldened by a popular uprising in Tunisia – which saw the ouster of the president last month – took to the streets on January 25 and mounted a once-unimaginable series of protests across this nation of 80 million.

The repercussions were being felt around the Mideast, as other authoritarian governments fearing popular discontent pre-emptively tried to burnish their democratic image.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II fired his government on Tuesday in the face of smaller street protests, named an ex-prime minister to form a new cabinet and ordered him to launch political reforms.


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