Five days of protests transform Cairo


CAIRO – Egypt’s capital resembles a battlefield, with burned-out cars, streets littered with rubble and clouds of thick dark smoke billowing above the seat of government as protesters demand that President Hosni Mubarak step down.
“Allahu Akbar! (God is greatest)” and “The people want the president out” were some of the slogans chanted by thousands of demonstrators gathered on Saturday on Tahrir square in downtown Cairo. “Mubarak, go!” they cried. The anti-regime demonstrators defied an early morning military curfew and resumed demands for Mubarak to step down, rejecting his promise to sack the government and carry out reforms as too little, too late.
“The president must go. It is the only thing we want. Mubarak must simply step down. He’s been there for 30 years. It’s enough!” said Hassan, a 30-year-old demonstrator. “Egypt should be an industrial and agricultural power but we are lagging behind,” he added. “It’s not normal.” “We will stay on the streets as long as he doesn’t leave power,” shouted Ali Barra, a young medical student. “It could take one year or two years but we will stay.”
Young Islamist militants, secularists, as well as onlookers drawn in from the impoverished suburbs, converged in the centre of Cairo, a city of epic proportions counting more than 20 million inhabitants. “Those guys there, they’re bandits, robbers, I don’t know where they come from but they look as if they had escaped from prison,” said one protestor pointing to a group of young men.
Residents hauled metal barriers off the streets around Tahrir quare, a focal point of protests, while crowds tackled the charred car carcasses blocking traffic downtown. Cairo, usually a vibrant and chaotic capital, appeared more akin to a battlefield on Saturday. Black smoke from the ruling National Democratic Party’s building, in flames since Friday, clouded the skies.
Hundred of thousands of people flooded the streets of Egypt’s main cities after the traditional weekly prayer on Friday, marking a day of unprecedented protests in the most populous country of the Arab world. Police, a target of demonstrators since Tuesday, stayed out of downtown Cairo early Saturday. But several tanks had been deployed to Tahrir square and about 10 more were stationed at the cornice near the national television.
Mubarak, 82, who has held a iron grip on power for the past three decades, promised overnight to form a new government and introduce political reforms but showed no sign of stepping down. “His speech is a stage. We want more freedom, economic reforms, the annulation of the last parliamentary election results. We want to be heard. We are not animals but humans,” cried Mohamed Raban, a demonstrator.
“The people have overcome their fear. Nothing can stop them now. I just hope there will not be looting,” said Hajjaj, a taxi driver puffing a cigarette as he threaded his way through the maze of the capital city. A supermarket owned by the French retail giant Carrefour was ransacked on Saturday in Maadi, a small oasis neighbourhood in the outskirts of Cairo, largely populated by wealthy expatriates.
The supermarket stood in a shopping mall along other Western stores. Late Friday evening, looting had already spread across several neighbourhoods of Cairo, parts of which were now almost unreckonisable by five days of mass protests.