Egypt: Mubarak names a new vice president (UPDATE)

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CAIRO, Egypt — As rioters continued to pour onto the streets in Cairo, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak named a vice president on Saturday, a step toward arranging a successor in the midst of political upheaval.

It was the first time Mubarak had named a successor in the 30 years he's been in power. He named his intelligence chief and close confidant Omar Suleiman, state television reported.

Earlier, Mubarak, 82, appeared on national television and urged calm and an end to the demonstrations. He said he dissolved his government and promised to appoint a new government.

Mubarak had ordered armored tanks onto the streets Cairo to enforce a nightly curfew, following the worst day of civil unrest Egypt has seen in recent history.

But neither Mubarak's words nor his security forces quelled the riots last night as thousands of defiant Egyptians continued to protest in the capital.

International pressure on Mubarak intensified, too, as U.S. President Barack Obama told Mubarak that American foreign aid could be contingent on democratic reforms during a telephone call with the Egyptian leader on Friday. Obama then made public what he told Mubarak.

Earlier U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on the Egyptian government to exercise restraint in dealing with protests and to respect citizens' human rights.

Clinton also asked the Mubarak government "to allow peaceful protests and reverse the unprecedented steps it has taken to cut off communications," a reference to the goverment's decision to block internet access in the country.

Egypt, the gateway to the Suez Canal, is one of America's closest allies in the Middle East. The U.S. provides Egypt with over $1 billion in military and economic aid annually, largely because of its 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

As many as 3,000 people, angered over rampant poverty and perceived corruption by Mubarak's nearly 30-year-old regime, continued their demonstrations  in central Cairo on early Saturday.

Tahrir Square, home to the country’s famous Egyptian Museum and several five-star hotels, looked like a war zone, with fires burning, cars destroyed, and chunks of torn asphalt littering the ground.

Hundreds of Egyptians roamed throughout the circle, as security forces fired canisters of tear gas into the crowd from the nearby parliament building every few seconds.

Several cars and a military armored vehicle were lit ablaze and completely vandalized.

Many of the mostly young, male protesters in Tahrir were seen leaving with chairs, computers, and other items looted from nearby office buildings.

At least two young Egyptians wore police helmets and carried riot shields they claimed to have wrestled from police during clashes on Friday.

Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party headquarters was still in flames, completely destroyed by enraged protesters on Friday.

Hundreds of onlookers, including camera-wielding families with children, watched the scene from nearby Nile River Bridges.

Across the river, in the middle-class Mohandesin neighborhood, several European-style clothing stores had been vandalized, their windows smashed and wares apparently looted.

Plumes of smoke billowed from the shattered window of an electronics store.

A day earlier, on a quiet, and eerily calm Friday afternoon, the scene in Egypt’s capital could not have looked more different.

Much of downtown Cairo appeared to be under occupation by police, who were bracing for a planned protests set to follow massive, countrywide demonstrations earlier in the week.

Thousands of black-clad Egyptian security forces reinforced Cairo’s bridges, government buildings, and Tahrir Square started early on Friday morning.

Most of the country’s media — including cellular phones, SMS text messaging, and most internet — was blacked-out, apparently in an attempt to prevent coordination by opposition members.

Protests were called by Egyptian activists and supported by several opposition groups, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

The protests — largely influenced by the recent uprising in Tunisia — were initially motivated by economic reasons. Critics said that Egypt's economy — while showing strong growth in the past 5 years — is not showing signs that money trickles down to the country's poor.

Around a fifth of Egyptians live on around $2 per day, according to the United Nations.

“We have no jobs. After seeing what happened in Tunisia, of course we are inspired,” said Mohamed Jalal, 27, an accountant who said he makes roughly $70 per month.

Friday’s protests began as small, loosely organized marches following the Muslim call to prayer in the afternoon on Friday, the holy day in Islam.

Still, police reacted swiftly and showed little restraint.

They fired tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds, and protesters were beaten with batons and rattan clubs.

But their actions did not deter the demonstrators. By dusk, the numbers of Egyptians in the streets had swelled to the tens of thousands in the Dokki neighborhood, just west of downtown Cairo.

“We have taken our streets back, and we will never go home now. We have tasted freedom, and we will never go without it again,” said Ahmed Ali in the Galaa circle near the Nile River.

And with a mixture of poor, middle and upper class Egyptians all converging to demonstrate, much of the anger had shifted from the economy to politics.

A crowd of thousands, some carrying Gucci handbags and wearing designer jeans, chanted “Mubarak, Mubarak, Saudi Arabia is waiting for you!” referring to the country where Tunisia’s recently ousted Ben Ali found asylum when he fled his country.

Scores of young male protesters tossed rocks, bricks, and broken chunks of nearby sidewalks directly at police forces.

With the streets of Dokki lined with demonstrators as far as the eye could see, security forces retreated from deeply entrenched lines — even leaving several vehicles in their wake.

“This is the first time for me to protest. But in 30 years [of Mubarak’s rule], we haven’t been allowed to say no. Now we are saying no,” said Amhad Yehya, through tears. The crying, he added, was out of joy, not because of the lingering tear gas in the area.

But after the initial euphoria, a wave of anger swept over some.

Leftover police vehicles were burned, smashed, stomped on, and spray-painted.

A small, glass-enclosed police outpost guarding the Galaa Bridge in Dokki was destroyed. Several concrete guard towers for traffic police were knocked to the ground.

Mubarak, perhaps sensing that security forces were overwhelmed, ordered military onto the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez — where similar unrest had occurred throughout the day.

Several tanks could be seen guarding government buildings, and curfew from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. was imposed.

In an address to the nation on state television, Mubarak refused to quit, but announced that he had asked his cabinet to resign.

"It is not by setting fire and by attacking private and public property that we achieve the aspirations of Egypt and its sons, but they will be achieved through dialogue, awareness and effort," said Mubarak.

But by late on Friday, private property continued to be attacked in Mohandesin and downtown as most police had apparently vanished from the streets.

In several neighborhoods, hordes of young, male Egyptians, many on motorbikes, yelled throughout the neighborhood, announcing that they were off to loot storefronts.

Ahmed Gomma, an executive at a local information technology company who broke curfew to drive food to protesters, said that destruction would damage the image of what many described as peaceful protests.

And like many, he wondered just who was controlling Cairo early on Saturday.

“Where are the police now?" said Gomaa. "Tell me, doesn’t our country have enough security forces to at least guard these stores?” 

See these striking photographs of the protests.

Here is a GlobalPost primer on the recent unrest across the Middle East and North Africa.

Read this GlobalPost dispatch on the roots of the protests in Egypt.

Follow GlobalPost on Twitter: @GlobalPost

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