Thursday, February 03, 2011

Mubarak rejects stepping down immediately; bloody clashes continue

By Will Englund , Griff Witte and William Branigin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 8:04 PM

CAIRO - As bloody attacks on anti-government demonstrators in central Cairo continued for a second day Thursday, embattled President Hosni Mubarak rejected opposition demands that he leave power immediately, saying such a move would throw the country into chaos.

In an interview with ABC News, Mubarak, 82, said he was tired of being president after nearly 30 years in office and would like to leave now, but he could not for fear of what would result. He said he told President Obama recently, "You don't understand the Egyptian culture and what would happen if I step down now." But he insisted that he is serious about not running for reelection and pledged that his son Gamal would not succeed him.

Mubarak spoke after Egypt's new vice president, in a separate interview with state television, appealed for patience in implementing reforms but warned against unspecified conspiracies.

The remarks came amid a growing chorus of international condemnation as dozens of foreign journalists and human rights workers were arrested while reporting on violent clashes following attempts by Mubarak supporters to break up anti-government demonstrations.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sternly denounced the arrests and the attacks on peaceful demonstrators. She called on the Egyptian government and military to protect those who are threatened and hold the perpetrators of the attacks accountable.

"I urge the government and a broad and credible representation of Egypt's opposition, civil society and political factions to begin immediately serious negotiations on a peaceful and orderly transition," she said at the State Department.

Two Washington Post journalists were among several dozen foreigners who were held for about six hours by the Egyptian military police in Cairo, then bused to a hotel near the capital's airport and told to remain there overnight.

In an interview with Christiane Amanpour of ABC News, Mubarak said he was troubled by the violence in and around Cairo's Tahrir Square but denied that his government was responsible for it. Instead, he blamed the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamist movement.

Repeating a vow that he made in a televised speech, Mubarak said he would never accede to opposition demands that he leave Egypt. "I would never run away," he told ABC. "I will die on this soil."

Joining Mubarak in the interview in his heavily guarded presidential palace was his son, Gamal Mubarak, 47, who was widely believed to be his father's choice to succeed him. However, the president said that was never his intention.

"I never intended to run again," he said. "I never intended Gamal to be president after me."

Omar Suleiman, a former intelligence chief and Mubarak confidant who was appointed vice president last week, said in an interview on state television that Mubarak would keep his word not to run in the next presidential election, to be held no later than September. But he rejected a quick departure.

"The issue of stepping down is an alien philosophy to the ideology of the Egyptian people," Suleiman said. "We all respect the father, the leader." He added: "To step down will be a call to chaos. There is no state without the leader or president, and we cannot tolerate this."

Suleiman pleaded for time to finish a dialogue with opposition parties and carry out constitutional and legislative reforms that he said were essential to pave the way for fair elections in which the opposition could participate.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley called the arrests of journalists part of a "concerted campaign to intimidate" the foreign press. "We condemn such actions," Crowley said.

Egypt's Information Ministry said that journalists were rounded up across the capital but that it did not know by whom or where the reporters were taken.

Those detained included Washington Post Cairo bureau chief Leila Fadel, Post photographer Linda Davidson, an Arabic-speaking interpreter and an Egyptian driver. The New York Times said two of its reporters were held overnight but had been released, and al-Jazeera said three of its journalists were detained and a fourth was missing.

Fadel and Davidson were released Thursday night from custody at the headquarters of the Egyptian military police, but they were not being permitted to leave a hotel near Cairo's airport. Post interpreter Sufian Taha and driver Mansour el-Sayed Mohammed Abo Gouda were separated from Fadel and Davidson before they, too, were freed, on Friday morning, Jehl said.

Fadel said that she and Davidson were not mistreated but that Abo Gouda was beaten. The two women were handcuffed, blindfolded, interrogated about their recent activities and required to sign a statement summarizing what they had said, Fadel told Jehl by telephone after their release. At one point, she said, their guards threatened to shoot members of the group if anyone talked.

Others in the group included human rights workers and teachers, Fadel said.

Human Rights Watch said one of its American staffers, former journalist Dan Williams, was among several rights workers taken into custody when police and army personnel raided the Hisham Mubarak Law Center.

A total of eight people have been killed in violence over the past two days, Egypt's Health Ministry said. Hundreds have been injured. Doctors working with the anti-government protesters said five of the dead were shot in Tahrir Square before dawn Thursday by Mubarak loyalists.

"They were killing our people," said Arafat Hussein, 25, a worker at the Health Ministry. He said he saw pro-Mubarak forces fatally shoot two of his friends - one in the head, the other in the heart.

In his interview on state television, Suleiman said Wednesday's assault by Mubarak supporters was the result of a "conspiracy." He added: "We should find out who was pulling the strings, and they will be strictly and fiercely penalized. ... We will identify who mobilized them and why they were engaged in fighting and why the clashes were not ended swiftly."

Suleiman also asserted that the anti-government protesters had been "infiltrated" by "certain groups," including unspecified foreigners. He raised the prospect that the Muslim Brotherhood or even business interests could be pursuing their own agendas by manipulating "the over-enthusiasm of the youth to divert them to certain acts."

The new vice president called on the young people involved in the protests to stop demonstrating and allow time for reforms to be implemented. Continued demonstrations, he said, would lead to "nothing but further paralysis and further destruction of the state." Already, Suleiman said, the turmoil has inflicted enormous losses on Egypt, costing the country $1 billion in lost tourism revenue in the past 10 days.

Suleiman said he needed another five to 10 days to finish a dialogue with opposition parties and 70 days to amend the constitution. He said "legislative amendments" needed 21 days to complete.

He praised Egypt's youth for being "the spark that ignited reform at this time" but argued that the government has responded to all their demands and that the time has come for them to "go back home."

Sporadic clashes nevertheless continued through the day, although for the most part the pro- and anti-government groups kept their distance from each other, often on opposite sides of a line of military vehicles or personnel.

With rights groups and key allies condemning Wednesday's attacks on protesters, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq apologized on state television and said he wanted to initiate dialogue with anti-government groups.

"I offer my apology for everything that happened yesterday because it's neither logical nor rational," Shafiq said.

In an uncharacteristically conciliatory statement during a news conference, Shafiq said Wednesday's protests began in a civilized way, of which the country could be proud. The attack on protesters by Mubarak supporters, he said, was "a blatant mistake."

"Why did they go in?" Shafiq asked rhetorically. He promised there would be an investigation, "so everyone knows who was behind it."

At the same time, however, a spokesman for Shafiq's cabinet denied any government role in orchestrating the attacks. "We were surprised with all these actions," spokesman Magdy Rady told Reuters news agency. "To accuse the government of mobilizing this is a real fiction. That would defeat our object of restoring the calm."

Refusing to end their 10-day old-demonstration, protesters set up makeshift hospitals in alleys off the square to treat their wounded, and fashioned a holding cell in a nearby travel office to detain those they suspected of inciting the violence.

Organizers said they had captured more than 350 "thugs of the government" among the pro-government demonstrators, some carrying police identification cards, and turned them over to the Egyptian army.

"Mubarak told them to kill us," said Osama Hilal, 27, a doctor who was treating the wounded at a makeshift triage center. "He thinks he can succeed to make all the people get out of this square. But we will not leave."

Human Rights Watch condemned the Egyptian government for what it called "organized attacks on pro-democracy demonstrators" Wednesday and asked that those responsible be prosecuted.

"The events in Tahrir Square and elsewhere strongly suggest government involvement in violence against peaceful protesters," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of the watchdog group. "The U.S. and other allies should make clear that further abuse will come at a very high price."

Also Thursday, the United Nations announced that it was evacuating 350 staffers from Egypt. And Britain, France and Germany issued a joint statement calling on Mubarak "to avoid at all costs the use of violence against unarmed civilians, and on the demonstrators to exercise their rights peacefully."

The Egyptian army sent the following text message to cellphones throughout the country: "Youth of Egypt be careful of rumors and be reasonable. Egypt is above all of us so protect it."

In Washington on Wednesday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called the violence "outrageous and deplorable" and warned that if any of it was "instigated by the government, it should stop immediately."

Wednesday's violence came after the army had urged pro-democracy demonstrators to go home, saying Mubarak's pledge the previous night to hand over power this fall showed that their voices had been heard. The coordinated nature of Wednesday's events suggested that his supporters were determined to show, as Mubarak had warned, that the country faced a "choice between chaos and stability."

Thousands of Mubarak supporters, encouraged by state television and spoiling for a fight, faced off against anti-government demonstrators starting at midday, while the army mostly stood by. Both sides then went at it with rocks, sticks and firebombs.

The president's loyalists fueled the showdown with a charge by men riding camels and horses and wielding whips and clubs. Hospitals reported that three people had been killed Wednesday and more than 600 injured.

Mubarak's opponents said they would not back down from their quest to force him from office. But pro-government groups seemed to be pushing back with new vigor. Suleiman, the new vice president, said earlier that there would be no dialogue with the opposition until the protests stopped, while Egypt's Foreign Ministry said that calls from Washington and other capitals for Mubarak's swift exit were intended to "incite the internal situation" in the country.

By Thursday, the square was filled once more with anti-Mubarak demonstrators, and the mood had definitively shifted. Where once a popular slogan was, "We're going to stay in the square," now people were chanting, "We're going to die in the square."

Volunteers transformed a mosque into a hospital, emptying bookshelves of holy texts in order to stack bandages, gauze and antiseptic.

Saal el-Ravi, a doctor working at the makeshift hospital, said the five who were fatally shot arrived between 3:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. Dozens of others were treated for less serious gunshot wounds, he said. Doctors said hundreds of people came in with head and body wounds caused by rocks, fists and sticks.

Nearby, in an abandoned travel agency office, anti-government protesters created a temporary jail. Angry mobs were bringing in captives, including several whose identification cards said they were police officers or members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party.

One heavyset captive denied he was with the police, but his jailers said a card found on him identified him as Major Osama Kamal Mohamed, of the Interior Ministry.

Mohamed's jailers lifted his arms up behind his back, trying to get him to confess, and he cried out in pain. One protester called him a "drama queen." Another, dentist Ibrahim al Hakim, said, "This is what they would do to us."

englundw@washpost.com witteg@washpost.com wilgorend@washpost.com Branigin reported from Washington. Correspondent Leila Fadel in Cairo and staff writer Debbi Wilgoren in Washington contributed to this report.

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