CAIRO (AFP) – Thousands of anti-regime demonstrators poured onto Cairo’s streets Saturday, demanding President Hosni Mubarak stand down the day after the veteran leader ordered the army to tackle the deadly protests.
Angry citizens streamed into Tahrir square, a focal point for the protests and street battles that have raged around Egypt since Tuesday and in which at least 35 people have died, chanting: “Mubarak out!” as troops looked on.
Police who have been battling protestors with tear gas, water cannon and rubber-coated bullets were largely absent, while tanks were deployed on the square and at strategic sites around the capital.
Police detained around 14 people on one of the city’s bridges who they said were looters, forcing them to kneel with their hands behind their heads.
“We’ve been left without anything because of the people, but still we have to catch the thieves,” one police officer who asked not to be identified told AFP, with 60 percent of Egypt’s police stations reportedly torched.
“Those people want change, but did they think that if they destroyed a police station and used violence the thieves would not come into their midst?”
Clashes also erupted in the key port city of Ismailiya, east of Cairo, where thousands of workers fought running battles with police.
Mubarak, 82, addressed the nation overnight, sacking the government and vowing economic and political reforms in the world’s most populous Arab nation but showing no sign of easing his decades-old grip on power.
“I have asked the government to resign and tomorrow there will be a new government,” a stony-faced Mubarak said amid the worst protests since 1977 bread riots.
“We will not backtrack on reforms. We will continue with new steps which will ensure the independence of the judiciary and its rulings, and more freedom for citizens,” he said.
Protesters who have been demanding that Mubarak step down, as well as an end to endemic state corruption and police brutality that have become systematic under his rule, dismissed his speech as too little, too late.
Shops and offices were looted overnight as thousands defied the 6:00 pm to 7:00 am curfew slapped on Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, with many protesters clambering onto army tanks and urging soldiers to join them.
Police were forced to fire tear gas towards soldiers when their tanks were surrounded by protesters throwing rocks and petrol bombs, while looters pillaged a branch of French supermarket Carrefour in the wealthy Maadi suburb.
Leading dissident Mohamed ElBaradei, who has said he would be prepared to lead a transitional authority if he were asked, told France 24 television he would join the street protests on Saturday to tell Mubarak he “must go.”
“President Mubarak did not understand the message of the Egyptian people,” ElBaradei said. “His speech was totally disappointing. The protests will continue with even more intensity until the Mubarak regime falls.”
In Alexandria, hundreds camped out by the main mosque in the centre of the Mediterranean city vowing to protest again, with several police stations still in flames amid sporadic looting.
As in Cairo, tanks were deployed around the city and the police were absent. Civilians directed traffic and conducted clean-up efforts.
In Tahrir square, hundreds chanted: “Those who love Egypt, don’t destroy it.”
Despite the ongoing protests, two Cairo mobile phone networks came back on line on Saturday, a day after all Egyptian operators were told to cut services.
But Internet access appeared still to be cut, with the inability to use microblogging sites such as Twitter or social networking sites such as Facebook affecting activists’ coordination of their activities.
US President Barack Obama called on the Egyptian authorities not to use violence against the political protests, driving home his message in a 30-minute phone call with Mubarak.
At least 20 people died around the country during Friday’s protests, many fatalities caused by rubber-coated bullets. Seven more died on Wednesday and Thursday.
Obama urged Mubarak to take “concrete” steps towards political reforms, saying he must turn “a moment of volatility” into “a moment of promise.”
“I want to be very clear in calling upon the Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters,” Obama said, after aides said the White House was readying for any possible political scenario in Egypt.
His warning came as Washington toughened its line on Mubarak’s government, a key Middle Eastern ally, warning it would review billions of dollars in aid to Egypt based on the behaviour of the security forces.
Egypt is one of the world’s largest recipients of US aid, receiving $1.3 billion annually in military assistance alone.
Demonstrators also torched the Cairo headquarters of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, which was still in flames on Saturday as civilians cleared the burned-out carcasses of police vehicles from the road.
The demonstrations, inspired by events in Tunisia, are the largest in Egypt in the three decades of Mubarak’s rule, sending shock waves across the region.
Medical and security sources said that 35 people have died since protests erupted on Tuesday, including 10 police, while 1,500 civilians and 1,000 police have been injured. At least 20 people were reported killed on Friday alone.
A security source said that 60 percent of police stations around the country had been torched, including 17 in the capital.
More than 350 people were arrested on Friday, including 50 leaders of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.