Cairo/Washington, Feb 2 (IANS) Trouble reigned in the Egyptian capital Wednesday as violent clashes erupted between pro- and anti-government protesters, with dozens reported injured, after President Hosni Mubarak said he would not quit till September, defying the call of millions of his people.
Three hours after Mubarak’s announcement, US President Barack Obama said firmly that the transition must “begin now”.
Thousands of people from the two sides attacked each other with sticks and rocks, with some reports of knives being drawn and the sound of gunfire. The clashes spilled over into side streets, with some people being trampled as they tried to escape the chaos, according to DPA.
Mubarak, 82, said in a 10-minute televised speech Tuesday night that he would not run for presidency for another term and pledged to ensure a smooth transfer of power after September.
“My main responsibility is to ensure stability, and in the next few months I will work on the country’s stability,” he said.
Mubarak, who is a former air chief, said: “I am a military man who served this country during war and peace and I will die on the soil of Egypt.”
The dramatic announcement only spurred trouble in Cairo, where hundreds of thousands of protesters had gathered at Tahrir Square for a ‘march of a million’, demanding Mubarak’s removal following eight days of unrest across the country.
As determined demonstrators continued to press for the ouster of Mubarak, protests supporting the president were also growing in size.
Opposition protesters accused the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of having paid thugs and police officers posing as civilians to confront them and “liberate Tahrir Square with blood”.
The military, stationed at checkpoints around the square, appeared to be trying without success to calm the situation. There were unconfirmed reports of pro-government demonstrators having taken control of armoured military vehicles.
Soldiers detained several people and were calling on people to go home. The military also called on NDP supporters to refrain from attacking the protesters who have been calling on Mubarak to step down, DPA reported.
Crews from broadcaster Al-Arabiya and other foreign media said they were attacked by the pro-government camp.
Egyptian newspaper al-Masri al-Youm, meanwhile, said it was evacuating its offices after the headquarters of another independent daily was ransacked.
Mubarak got only jeers for his speech from the many thousands, participating in the massive people’s uprising.
“The speech is useless and only inflames our anger,” Al-Jazeera quoted a protester, Shadi Morkos, as saying in Tahrir Square.
The Egyptian Army, which had refused to use force against the demonstrators, stepped in Wednesday to ask them to return home for the sake of stability of the country, reported DPA.
Train services continued to be cut but internet service were back online.
Responding to Mubarak’s televised announcement, Egyptian leader and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohammed ElBaradei said that Mubarak’s speech did not meet the people’s demand and asked for more immediate action.
The opposition Muslim Brotherhood has also dismissed Mubarak’s offer. Mohammed Mursi, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, said: “This satisfies none of the people’s demands.”
US President Obama warned of “difficult days ahead” and said the transition in Egypt, the US’ steadfast ally in the region, must begin now.
“We’ve borne witness to the beginning of new chapter in the history of a great country and a long-time partner of the United States,” Obama said in a brief statement from Washington.
Obama said Mubarak “recognises that the status quo is not sustainable and a change must take place”.
Repeating earlier calls for an orderly transition in Egypt from Mubarak’s nearly three decades of autocratic rule to a fully representative democracy, Obama said the transition “must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now”.
“Furthermore, the process must include a broad spectrum of Egyptian voices and opposition parties,” Obama said.
“It should lead to elections that are free and fair. And it should result in a government that’s not only grounded in democratic principles but is also responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”
As the world remained glued to the unfolding drama, opposition parties in Egypt took their most concrete step yet towards developing an agenda, issuing a list of demands to the existing power structures to form a basis for negotiations.
The first item demanded that Mubarak “and his regime” step down. Secondly, a transitional leadership should be formed, and a committee established to write a new constitution. Finally, parliament, dominated by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, should be dissolved.
The list was sent to Vice President Omar Suleiman, the former head of the national intelligence agency, who has said he would open a dialogue with “all political parties”.
Mubarak had overhauled his government Monday in an attempt to defuse the protest against his regime, but protesters rejected the changes.
Poverty is rife among Egypt’s 80 million people, nearly half of whom are below the age of 35.