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Troops fire on protesters as Mubarak clings to power


REVOLUTION ON THE NILE: Protesters carry a victim of clashes with riot police in Cairo yesterday. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

REVOLUTION ON THE NILE: Protesters carry a victim of clashes with riot police in Cairo yesterday. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

REVOLUTION ON THE NILE: Protesters carry a victim of clashes with riot police in Cairo yesterday. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

HOSNI MUBARAK was desperately trying to cling on to power in Egypt last night as troops opened fire in an attempt to keep tens of thousands of protesters from storming the interior ministry and state-run television and radio stations.

The president's attempt to mollify the demonstrators by sacking his government 24 hours earlier had failed, and the leader of the largest Arab nation was facing an ignoble and violent end to his 30 years in power. The streets rang out with anti-government slogans and the cry "Mubarak, your plane is ready".

The president, 82, who has not picked a vice-president since he took office in 1981, appointed his intelligence chief and confidant, Omar Suleiman, to the post. The step indicates for the first time a possible succession plan and also suggests that Mr Mubarak's son, Gamal, long seen as the leader-in-waiting, is no longer in the picture.

Mr Suleiman, 74, has taken a close role in key policy areas, including the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, an issue seen as vital to Egypt's relationship with the US, its key ally and aid donor.

Last night, even as the death toll from confrontations between the security forces and the protesters reached 100 and hospitals were overwhelmed with casualties, there were even more people on the streets of the major cities after dark, defying an army-backed curfew. Small-arms fire was heard throughout the night.

The chief of staff of Egypt's armed forces, Lieutenant-General Sami Hafez Enan, cut short a visit to meet the American joint chiefs of staffs as news spread that some troops were refusing to open fire on unarmed protesters.

"There's a lot of uncertainty about where the army stands right now," said Karim Ennarah, who was taking part in protests in Cairo.

"They are telling people that the tanks have moved in to protect them, and people are showing great warmth in return, dancing on tanks and hugging and kissing soldiers. It looks as if the soldiers are unwilling to launch attacks on the crowds, although senior officers are pleading with protesters to go home."

There was speculation that the generals would persuade Mr Mubarak to step down to avoid a total breakdown. Looters have broken into the Egyptian Museum, which hold the treasures of Tutankhamun, destroying a number of mummies.

Attempts were also made to break into the national bank. Reports emerged of gunfire in the affluent Cairo neighbourhood of Mahdi.

Mr Mubarak was rocked by the resignation of a senior member of his ruling party, Ahmed Ezz, a close friend of his son. Further pressure was heaped on him by the Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who said Mr Mubarak should step down and set a framework for transition of power as the only way to end unrest. The former head of the UN nuclear watchdog told al-Jazeera that Mr Mubarak's speech, in which he said he would form a new government, was "disappointing" for Egyptians. Mr ElBaradei, a possible candidate in Egypt's presidential election this year, flew back to Cairo from Vienna last Thursday.

He said: "The system of Hosni Mubarak has failed to achieve the political, economic and social demands of the Egyptian people and we want to build a new Egypt founded on freedom, democracy and social justice. The main demand is that President Mubarak announces clearly that he will resign, or that he will not run again."

Dominic Asquith, the British ambassador to Egypt, said of the demonstrations: "I'm struck by the variety of age, of class, of gender. It's across the board, you can see it -- you can see the variety of people there. It's not, from my perception, religiously driven. This is not the Muslim Brotherhood. The important thing that we have to focus on is to try and maintain a state of order where. . . a national dialogue, can take place."

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia said: "The kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its people and government declares it stands with all its resources with the government of Egypt and its people."

The Saudi stock market, the Arab world's largest, dropped 6.43 per cent amid the rising tensions. Traders fear that other Gulf markets could experience similar falls.

US President Barack Obama spoke to Mr Mubarak on the phone, issuing a stern warning that promises of reform had to be followed by meaningful action.

It was still a far way from abandoning a man who has been a trusted and loyal ally of successive US administrations. But it was a rapid shift of gears from just 24 hours previously and it was essentially driven entirely by the protesters on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria.

Mr Obama's message was clear to the ageing autocrat and his claims of wanting reform: "I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words; to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise."

The situation is even more complex for Washington's other allies in the region, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In all those countries ordinary people have watched agog at the protests and then taken to the streets in varying degrees to try to kickstart their own protests. Their rulers may have to walk the same tightrope Mr Mubarak is trying to walk: balancing promises of reform with keeping control.