Looted stores, burned out cars and the stench of blazing tires filled the streets of Cairo early on Sunday as President Hosni Mubarak sought to bargain with angry crowds and security forces struggled to contain looters.
In five days of unprecedented protests that have rocked the Arab world, more than 100 people have been killed, investors and tourists have taken fright, Mubarak has offered a first glimpse of a plan to step down and 80 million long-suffering Egyptians are caught between hope for democratic reform and fear of chaos.
The United States and European powers were busy tearing up their Middle East policies, which have supported Mubarak at the head of the most populous Arab nation for 30 years, turning a blind eye to police brutality and corruption in return for a solid bulwark against first communism and now militant Islam.
The biggest immediate fear was of looting as all public order broke down. Mobs stormed into supermarkets, banks, jewelry shops and government buildings. Thieves at the Egyptian Museum damaged two mummies from the time of the pharaohs.
“They are letting Egypt burn to the ground,” said Inas Shafik, 35.
On Saturday, the 82-year-old Mubarak bowed to protesters and named a vice-president for the first time, a move seen as lining up Omar Suleiman, hitherto his chief of intelligence, as an eventual successor, at least for a transition. Many also saw it as ending his son Gamal’s long-surmised ambitions to take over.
Fearful of a descent into anarchy, some Egyptians may have been reassured by signs Mubarak may be readying a handover of power within the military establishment.
But those on the streets of Cairo, a teeming megalopolis of 15 million that is the biggest city in the Middle East, have scented weakness and remain impatient for Mubarak to go now.
“This is not acceptable. Mubarak must step down. Public unrest will not stop until this is achieved,” Mohammed Essawy, a 26-year-old graduate student, said of the appointments.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said: “The Egyptian government can’t reshuffle the deck and then stand pat.”
Since protesters toppled Tunisia’s leader two weeks ago, demonstrations have spread across north Africa and the Middle East in an unprecedented wave of anger at authoritarian leaders, many of them entrenched for decades and enjoying U.S. support.
“This is the Arab world’s Berlin moment,” said Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics, comparing the events to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “The authoritarian wall has fallen, and that’s regardless of whether Mubarak survives.”
As in Tunisia, Egypt’s exploding young population, most of then underemployed and frustrated by oppression at the hands of a corrupt and rapacious elite, were demanding a full clear-out of the old guard, not just a reshuffle of the governing class.
Police shot dead 17 people in Bani Suef, south of Cairo, as street battles intensified in some towns, even as police seemed to leave much of Cairo to the army, an institution generally respected by Egyptians and less associated with oppression.
According to various estimates more than 100 people have been killed during the week in Egypt’s capital and other cities.