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Egypt President Asks Cabinet To Resign

A protester in Cairo gestures to anti-riot police in front of the l-Istiqama ...

Photo by Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Above: A protester in Cairo gestures to anti-riot police in front of the l-Istiqama Mosque in Giza on Friday as tens of thousands of demonstrators filled the streets.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he has asked his Cabinet to resign in his first appearance on television since protests erupted demanding his ouster.

In his address, Mubarak said he would press ahead with social, economic and political reforms, but he defended the actions of Egyptian security forces against protesters. He called the anti-government protests part of a plot to destabilize Egypt and destroy the legitimacy of his regime.

Armored military vehicles rumbled through the streets of the Egyptian capital on Friday during a countrywide crackdown on the anti-government protesters, who went head to head with riot police and set fire to the ruling party headquarters.

TV broadcasts showed armored personnel carriers at key intersections in Cairo as darkness fell on a "Friday of Wrath" that saw stones hurled by protesters met by rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons from police. The ruling party headquarters in the capital was ablaze and the country's main opposition leader was placed under house arrest as part of a government crackdown.

Defying a nationwide curfew, protesters were attempting to storm two major government buildings: the state TV and the Foreign Ministry. Other demonstrators were praying on the streets after nightfall.

TV broadcasts showed armored personnel carriers at key intersections in Cairo as darkness fell on a day that saw stones hurled by protesters met by rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons from police.

Egypt's national carrier, EgyptAir, said it has suspended its flights from Cairo for 12 hours.

Security officials said there were protests in at least 11 of Egypt's 28 provinces. The scenes of chaos were a near replay of the violence that swept through another North African country, Tunisia, earlier this month and forced out the autocratic government.

Mubarak ordered a nationwide nightly curfew from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. He told the military to work in tandem with police to enforce the dusk-to-dawn lockdown.

In Cairo, riot police wearing helmets and carrying shields moved in early Friday to intercept anti-government demonstrators heading to Tahrir Square, which has become center stage for the protests in the capital.

The protesters marched across the Kasr Al Nile Bridge and were moving toward the square when police began firing tear gas and water cannons into the crowd.

Tahrir is "the spot where the endgame is taking place as the Egyptians see it," said NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, reporting from a hotel overlooking the square. "This will be .... a very strong symbolic victory if the protesters are able to take this, or, in reverse, if the government is able to keep the protesters out."

She said protesters are making their way toward the square despite a nonstop barrage of tear gas. "You see protesters wearing headscarves or rubbing onion onto their nostrils and their eyes."

Earlier in the afternoon, Nelson said she saw "many protesters carrying other protesters that were bloodied and injured."

Al-Jazeera said at least one person was killed. The Qatar-based news channel also said that Ayman Nour, a contender in Egypt's 2005 presidential race, was among the dozens wounded in Tahrir Square.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate and pro-democracy advocate Mohamed ElBaradei joined protesters early in the day but was later placed under house arrest at his suburban Cairo home a day after he returned to Egypt vowing to push for regime change.

ElBaradei was among those who were hit by water cannons during the protest. Some of his supporters were beaten by police after forming a barrier with their bodies in an effort to protect him. ElBaradei was later forced to hole up inside a mosque while hundreds of riot police laid siege to it, firing tear gas in the surrounding streets so no one could leave. The tear gas canisters set cars ablaze outside the mosque, and several people fainted and suffered burns.

At the upscale Mohandiseen district, at least 10,000 people were marching toward the city center chanting "down, down with Mubarak!" The crowd later swelled to about 20,000 as they made their way through residential areas.

At this stage, the Egyptian protesters simply "want Mr. Mubarak to step down, his regime to go, his Cabinet to leave [and] the Parliament that was elected in controversial elections" in 2005 to be dissolved, Nelson said.

The protesters also gained the backing of the country's biggest opposition group, the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which called on its supporters to join the demonstrations.

Earlier, authorities shut down Internet and cell phone services nationwide in an apparent effort to disrupt the protests that have quickly grown into the biggest-ever challenge to Mubarak in his three decades of rule.

Mubarak, 82, is Washington's closest Arab ally. But the United States has signaled that the Egyptian president no longer enjoys its full backing, publicly counseling him to introduce reform and refrain from using violence against the protesters.

"The legitimate grievances that have festered for quite some time in Egypt have to be addressed by the Egyptian government immediately, and violence is not the response," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Friday afternoon.

Gibbs said the United States "will be reviewing our assistance posture based on events in the coming days" in Egypt, but did not offer specifics.

President Obama has not spoken to Mubarak, Gibbs said. Asked why not, Gibbs said "we're monitoring a very fluid situation."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on the Egyptian government "to do everything in its power to restrain security forces" but noted that "protesters should also refrain from violence and express themselves peacefully."

"We want to continue to partner with the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people. What will eventually happen in Egypt is still up to Egyptians," Clinton told reporters in Washington.

Edward Walker, a former ambassador to Egypt and Israel in the Clinton administration, told NPR that Mubarak would be "making a big mistake" not to take the situation in Cairo seriously.

"If I had to guess, I'd guess [the government] will get this under control in the next few days," Walker told NPR. "But if they don't take it as a big, big, warning sign and start making some changes, it's just going to happen again, and it's going to get worse every time."

Mubarak and his government have said they are ready for dialogue but have shown no hint of concessions to the protesters who want political reform and a solution to rampant poverty, unemployment and rising food prices.

In fact, Mubarak himself has been notably absent in recent days. "There has been no word of him," Nelson said.

She added that when the ruling National Democratic Party held a news conference Thursday, "it was the secretary-general — one of the officials of the party — and not the president who spoke."

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