Marco Longari/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Egypt was engulfed in a fifth day of protests on Saturday but an attempt by President Hosni Mubarak to salvage his 30-year rule by firing his cabinet and calling out the army appeared to backfire as troops and demonstrators fraternized and called for the president himself to resign.While some protesters clashed with police, army tanks expected to disperse the crowds in central Cairo and in the northern city of Alexandria instead became rest points and even, on occasion, part of the protests as anti-Mubarak graffiti were scrawled on them without interference from soldiers.
“Leave Hosni, you, your son and your corrupted party!” declared the graffiti on one tank as soldiers invited demonstrators to climb aboard and have their photographs taken with them.
“This is the revolution of all the people,” declared the side of a second tank in downtown Cairo. Egyptian men all serve in the army, giving it a very different relationship to the people from that of the police.
The feared security police had largely withdrawn from central Cairo to take up positions around the presidential palace, with their places taken up by the army.
Following Mr. Mubarak’s demand in his late-night speech, the Egyptian cabinet officially resigned on Saturday. But there was no sign of letup in the tumult. Reports from morgues and hospitals suggested that at least 50 people had been killed so far.
In Ramses Square in central Cairo Saturday midday, protesters commandeered a flatbed army truck. One protester was driving the truck around the square while a dozen others on the back were chanting for President Mubarak to leave office. Nearby, soldiers relaxed around their tanks and armored vehicles and chatted with protesters. There were no policemen in sight.
In another sign that the army was showing sympathy for the demonstrations, in a different central Cairo square on Saturday a soldier in camouflage addressed a crowd through a bullhorn declaring that the army would stand with the people.
“I don’t care what happens,” the soldier said. “You are the ones who are going to make the change.” The crowd responded, “The army and the people will purify the country.”
Workers at the Alexandria morgue said they had counted more than 20 bodies from the last 24 hours of violence. Meanwhile, protests had started up again in the city. But there too, the demonstrators and the soldiers showed sympathy for one another. Demonstrators brought tea to the troops and had their pictures taken with them. Protesters walked by armored carriers unmolested with few signs of animosity. People gathered outside the morgue looking for their relatives. In the main hospital, there were a number of people lying wounded from live fire.
Cellphone service, cut off by the government on Friday, was partially restored although other elements of the communication shut down remained in force. The army moved to secure the Cairo International Airport on Saturday as the Associated Press reported that as many as 2,000 people flocked to the airport, many without reservations, in a frantic attempt to leave the country. International carriers reported delays and cancellations.
Television images showed slow moving traffic returning to Cairo’s bridges where pitched battles occurred the day before. Young men directed cars in places — filling a void left by the departure of nearly all police from the streets — as the sound of honking replaced the pop of rubber bullets and tear gas.
But the city remained on edge as tens of thousands of protesters gathered in central Cairo and army vehicles rolled through the streets. It remained unclear what new orders the army might receive as the government declared a new curfew for 4 p.m. on Saturday, or how its soldiers and officers might respond.
On Friday, with much of the nation in open revolt, Mr. Mubarak deployed the nation’s military, instituted an overnight curfew and imposed a near-total blackout on communications to save his authoritarian government.