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Amid turmoil, Mubarak names close ally as vice president

Video by Gallagher Fenwick

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-01-29

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has named intelligence chief and close ally Omar Suleiman as vice president, a position left vacant since he took power in 1981, as thousands of protesters continue to press for his resignation in defiance of a curfew.

 

REUTERS - Egypt's president gave the first indication on Saturday he was preparing an eventual handover of power by naming a vice-president for the first time in 30 years after protests that have rocked the foundations of the state.
 
Hosni Mubarak's decision to pick Omar Suleiman, his intelligence chief and confidant, as his No. 2 is the first time the 82-year-old leader has hinted at a succession plan and may suggest he will not run in an election scheduled for September.
 
Whether he can hold on to power until then, however, remained in question. Many believe the army holds the key.
 
Until five days of unprecedented scenes of popular defiance and chaos across the country, officials had suggested Mubarak would run again. If not him, many Egyptians believed, his son, Gamal, 47, could be lined up to run. This now seems impossible.
 
Suleiman, 74, has long been central in key policy areas, including the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, an issue vital to Egypt's relationship with key aid donor the United States.
 
Some protesters, whose actions forced Mubarak to send the army onto the streets of the biggest Arab nation, were not happy with a decision that looks set to ensure power stays in the hands of military and security institutions.
 
"He is just like Mubarak, there is no change," a protester told Reuters outside the Interior Ministry, where thousands were protesting, moments after the appointment.
 
The appointment as prime minister of Ahmad Shafiq -- who is, like Mubarak himself, a former commander of the air force -- also indicated a preference for responding to public demands for change with limited changes in personnel. Mubarak's decision on Friday to sack the government failed to impress protesters.
 
The speaker of parliament was later quoted as saying that there were no plans to meet demands for early elections.
 
 For some, however, naming Suleiman at the formal right-hand of Mubarak was a relief after millions had looked on in panic as security in Egypt disintegrated with protesters ripping up pictures of Mubarak and torching government buildings.
 
"I am happy. I feel this is a change and the people will be happy. They wanted something, they want to feel they could make a difference," said Effat Abdul-Hamid, a private security guard.
 
Analysts said it was the first indication that Mubarak had realised the magnitude of the upheaval that gripped his country, the Arab world's most populous state.
 
"This is a step in the right direction, but I am afraid it is a late step," said Hassan Nafaa, politics professor at Cairo University, adding that much may depend on how Suleiman, as a senior representative of the military, could capitalise on public regard for the army to smoothe the departure of Mubarak.
 
"The street will not be convinced by Omar Suleiman at this moment unless Omar Suleiman addresses the people and says there will be a new system and that Mubarak has handed power over to him and that the military is in control of the situation and has a programme of a democratic transition," Nafaa said.
 
Army hold back
 
On the streets of Cairo, soldiers repelled protesters who attacked a central government building. But elsewhere in the city, troops took no action as people stayed on the streets despite warnings to stay indoors after 4 p.m. (1400 GMT).
 
"Tension is literally reaching a climax here in the heart of Cairo."
A group of 50 people approached a military cordon carrying a sign reading "Army and People Together". Soldiers pulled back a barrier and let the group through: "There is a curfew," one lieutenant said. "But the army isn't going to shoot anyone."
 
The protesters, many of them young urban poor or students, are enraged over endemic poverty, corruption and unemployment as well as the lack of democracy in the most populous Arab nation.
 
The unrest, which follows the overthrow of Tunisian strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali two weeks ago in a popular uprising, has sent shock waves through the Middle East, where other autocratic rulers may face similar challenges.
 
On the Corniche promenade alongside the River Nile in Cairo, people stayed out after the curfew deadline, standing by tanks and chatting with soldiers who took no action to disperse them.
 
Earlier on Saturday, several thousand people flocked to central Cairo's Tahrir Square, waving Egyptian flags and pumping their arms in the air in unison. "The people demand the president be put on trial," they chanted.
 
The scene contrasted with Friday, when police fired teargas and rubber bullets and protesters hurled stones in running battles. Government buildings, including the ruling party headquarters, were set alight by demonstrators.
 
While the police are generally feared as an instrument of repression, the army is seen as a national institution.
 
Rosemary Hollis, at London's City University, said the army had to decide whether it stood with Mubarak or the people: "It's one of those moments where as with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe they can come down to individual lieutenants and soldiers to decide whether they fire on the crowd or not."
 
Dozens killed
 
In Alexandria, police used teargas and live ammunition against demonstrators earlier on Saturday. Protests continued in the port city after curfew, witnesses said.
 
According to a Reuters tally, at least 74 people have been killed during the week. Medical sources said at least 1,030 people were injured in Cairo.
 
Clashes have also occurred in Suez, near the eastern terminal of the canal linking Europe and Asia.
 
Mubarak, has held power since the 1981 assassination of Sadat by Islamist soldiers. He promised to address Egyptians' grievances in a televised speech on Friday.
 
The France 24 interview: ElBaradei says Mubarak 'must go'
So far, the protest movement seems to have no clear leader or organisation. Prominent activist Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Laureate for his work with the U.N. nuclear agency, returned to Egypt from Europe to join the protests. But many Egyptians feel he has not spent enough time in the country.
 
The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist opposition group, has also stayed in the background, although several of its senior officials have been rounded up.
 
Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics, said the protests had already changed the game in the Middle East.
 
"This is the Arab world's Berlin moment. The authoritarian wall has fallen, and that's regardless of whether Mubarak survives or not. It goes beyond Mubarak," he said.
 
"The barrier of fear has been removed. It is really the beginning of the end of the status quo in the region.
 
US dilemma
 
It also poses a dilemma for the United States. Mubarak, 82, has been a close ally of Washington and beneficiary of U.S. aid for decades, justifying his autocratic rule in part by citing a danger of Islamist militancy.
 
Egypt plays a key role in Middle East peacemaking and was the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
 
U.S. President Barack Obama said he had spoken to Mubarak shortly after his speech on Friday and urged him to make good on his promises of reform. U.S. officials made clear that $1.5 billion in aid was at stake.
 
Britain, Germany and other countries advised their nationals against travel to the main cities hit, a development that would harm Egypt's tourist industry, a mainstay of the economy.
 
Banks will be shut on Sunday as "a precaution", Central Bank Governor Hisham Ramez told Reuters.
 
The stock market, whose benchmark index tumbled 16 percent in two days, will also be closed on Sunday. The Egyptian pound fell to six-year lows.

Date created : 2011-01-29

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