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Looting grows in lawless Egypt

Mubarak names a vice president as vigilante groups replace police

January 30, 2011|Jeffrey Fleishman and Edmund Sanders

CAIRO — Looting spread across Egypt and President Hosni Mubarak appointed a vice president as protesters swarmed into the streets for a fifth day, burning buildings, ransacking police offices and marching joyfully past tanks and soldiers.

Demonstrations aimed at ending Mubarak's 30 years in power were eclipsed for many by a growing fear of lawlessness. After police retreated following clashes with protesters, vigilantes armed with sticks and knives patrolled Cairo neighborhoods. Reports spread that escaped prisoners and thugs from the ruling party were roaming the capital and other cities on motorcycles.

"We were out guarding our neighborhood and we caught a number of people attempting to loot, including five carrying identification cards from the Interior Ministry," said Kamal Banna, a labor activist from Suez, the scene of some of the most violent battles between security forces and protesters since the nationwide revolt began Tuesday.

State television reported that 62 people had been killed in clashes during the preceding two days.

In a speech early Saturday, the 82-year-old Mubarak had refused to step down but said he was asking for the resignation of the entire government.

Later in the day, he appointed Ahmed Shafik, minister of civil aviation and a retired air force general, as prime minister and Omar Suleiman, head of intelligence, as vice president. It is the first time that Mubarak has had a vice president.

In Suleiman, Mubarak is turning to a trusted ruling-party ally during one of the nation's worst political crises. The former spy chief is respected by the West and regarded as a skilled diplomat. He has for years been Egypt's main negotiator with the Palestinians, and he was credited with taking security measures on a visit to Ethiopia in 1995 that saved Mubarak from assassination.

He has the military background that has defined Egyptian leaders since Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in a 1952 coup. His appointment also suggests that Mubarak's son Gamal, whom many regarded as a likely successor, may, at least in the short term, not be in contention. Mubarak was vice president in 1981 when he took power after the assassination of Anwar Sadat.

"Any prospects of succession are now over," said Mustafa Labbad, director of Al Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies, referring to Mubarak's son. But the protests have changed Egypt enough that the 74-year-old Suleiman could be no more than a transitional figure.

"Egyptians will not accept Suleiman as leader of the country after Mubarak because of his connection to the old regime," Labbad said.

Others view Suleiman as a wise political choice.

"When you end the Mubarak regime," said Hisham Kassem, a journalist and political analyst, "you will need a powerful man during the transition, and he is a powerful man."

The appointments of Shafik and Suleiman did little to appease tens of thousands of protesters or Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who for many has come to symbolize the opposition movement.

"This is a change of personnel, and we are talking about the change of a regime," ElBaradei told Al Jazeera satellite television channel.

"The Egyptian people are saying one thing: President Hosni Mubarak must leave. We have to move toward a democratic state."

But there was no clear indication how the opposition, including ElBaradei, the Muslim Brotherhood and protest organizers such as the April 6 youth movement, was going to turn mass street demonstrations into a strategically unified force.

Throughout the region Saturday, the unrest in Egypt continued to rivet people tired of repressive, corrupt rulers. In Iran, a Persian-majority nation, students demonstrated to show their support for protesters in Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries. Demonstrations in support of the Egyptian movement were also held in Lebanon and Yemen.

The Obama administration kept a careful watch on developments in Egypt, a key ally that has received billions of dollars in U.S. aid. Obama made his high-profile appeal for better relations with the Islamic world less than two years ago in Cairo. But he has been hoping to focus now on the American economy, ending U.S. involvement in Iraq and gaining the upper hand in Afghanistan.

In Cairo, demonstrators gathered for a second day outside the Interior Ministry, home of the much-reviled police. Security forces inside the ministry shot and killed three demonstrators. Across much of the capital and in other cities, protests were intense if a bit smaller than on Friday.

The headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party, set alight Friday, continued to burn. Curators of the adjacent Egyptian Museum's ancient artifacts feared that the treasures could be damaged if the party headquarters collapsed on the museum.

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