Thousands of protesters in the Egyptian cities of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez have defied a nighttime curfew and continued with demonstrations demanding an end to Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year presidency. Speaking on national television, the president said he had ordered the government to step down and that he would name a new government on Saturday. Military armoured vehicles rolled onto the streets of the capital on Friday night in a bid to quell the protests, but buildings have been set alight, and violent clashes continue after a day of unprecedented anger. A building belonging to the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) was torched, and reports of looting of numerous government buildings have also emerged.
Al Jazeera’s Ayman Mohyeldin, reporting from Cairo, said that several police vehicles were also set ablaze, and firefighters did not appear to be on the streets. Before Mubarak’s announcement, Egypt’s parliamentary speaker said the president remained in control of the country despite chaos engulfing the capital and other cities. “Matters are in the safe hands of Hosni Mubarak and he will act and you will see these actions,” Fathy Surour said. Friday’s demonstrations involving tens of thousands of people were the biggest and bloodiest in four consecutive days of protests against Mubarak’s government. Al Jazeera’s Rawya Rageh, reporting from the port city of Alexandria, said that protesters there were also defying the curfew.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog and an opposition leader in Egypt, was briefly detained by police after he prayed at a mosque in the Giza area but he later took part in a march with supporters. The unrest in Egypt was triggered by the overthrow two weeks ago of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in an uprising that has also inspired anti-government protests in Yemen and elsewhere. The government in Egypt had vowed to crack down on demonstrations and arrest those participating in them. It had blocked internet, mobile phone and SMS services in order to disrupt the planned demonstrations. Before internet access was shut down on Thursday night, activists were posting and exchanging messages using social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter, listing more than 30 mosques and churches where protesters were to organise on Friday. Ibrahim Yousri, the former head of international law at the Egyptian foreign ministry, told Al Jazeera that the government had been warned for many years to adopt reforms.
“This is effectively the beginning of the end of the regime. This government was warned to implement reforms, but they ignored calls over the years,” he said. “Most Egyptians also would not want a military government, but a temporary, or transitional government that is led by a civilian.” It is far from a foregone conclusion that the protesters will force Mubarak out. They face two key challenges, said Amon Aran, a Middle East expert at London’s City University, told Reuters news agency. “One is the Egyptian security apparatus, which over the years has developed a vested interest in the survival of President Mubarak’s regime. This elaborate apparatus has demonstrated over the past few days that it is determined to crush political dissent,” he said. “Another obstacle derives from the fact that, so far, the protesters do not seem to form a coherent political opposition. The popular outcry is loud and clear, but whether it can translate into a political force is questionable.”