By HAMZA HENDAWI and HADEEL AL-SHALCHI, Associated Press
CAIRO (AP) - Egypt's embattled President Hosni Mubarak said early Saturday that he had asked his Cabinet to resign, and promised reforms in his first response to protesters who have mounted the biggest challenge ever to his 30-year rule.
But Mubarak also defended the crackdown by police on tens of thousands of demonstrators that drew harsh criticism from the Obama administration Friday and even a threat to reduce a $1.5 billion program of foreign aid if Egypt escalated the use of force.
A somber-looking Mubarak called anti-government protests "part of a bigger plot to shake the stability and destroy legitimacy" of the political system.
The steps announced in a nationally televised speech fell short of protesters' demands for his ouster that have been a constant mantra during four straight days of demonstrations.
"Out, out, out!" protesters chanted Friday in violent, chaotic scenes of battles with riot police.
They also demand remedies to widespread poverty in this nation of 80 million.
"We aspire for more democracy, more effort to combat unemployment and poverty and combat corruption," he said.
But those words were likely to be interpreted as an attempt to cling to power rather than take concrete steps to solve some of the more pressing problems facing many Egyptians, primarily unemployment and rapidly rising food prices.
Mubarak also defended the security forces' crackdown on protesters, saying he had given them instructions that the protesters be allowed to express their views. But, he said, acts of violence and vandalism left the security forces with no choice but to react top restore order.
He spoke minutes after the end of a day of protesters running rampant on the streets of Cairo, battling police with stones and firebombs, burning down the ruling party headquarters, and defying a night curfew enforced by a military deployment.
He said this week's protests struck fear in the heart of the majority of Egyptians concerned about the future of their country.
"Violence will not solve the problems we face or realize the objectives we aspire to," he said. "I will not shy away from taking any decision that maintains the security of every Egyptian," he vowed.
The government's attempts to suppress demonstrations appeared to be swiftly eroding support from the U.S. - suddenly forced to choose between its most important Arab ally and a democratic uprising demanding his ouster.
Despite Mubarak's address, the protesters were sure to be emboldened by their success in bringing tens of thousands to the streets in defiance of a ban, a large police force, countless canisters of tear gas, and even a nighttime curfew enforced by the first military deployment of the crisis.
Flames rose in cities across Egypt as police cars burned and protesters set the ruling party headquarters in Cairo ablaze. Hundreds of young men tore televisions, fans and stereo equipment from other buildings of the National Democratic Party neighboring the Egyptian Museum, home of King Tutankhamun's treasures and one of the country's most popular tourist attractions.
Young men could be seen forming a human barricade in front of the museum to protect it.
Others around the city looted banks, smashed cars, tore down street signs and pelted armored riot police vehicles with paving stones torn from roadways.
"We are the ones who will bring change," said 21-year-old Ahmed Sharif. "If we do nothing, things will get worse. Change must come!" he screamed through a surgical mask he wore to ward off the tear gas.
Egypt's national airline halted flights for at least 12 hours and a Cairo Airport official said a number of international airlines had canceled flights to the capital, at least overnight. There were long lines at many supermarkets and employees limited bread sales to 10 rolls per person.
Options appeared to be dwindling for Mubarak, a 82-year-old former air force commander who until this week maintained what looked like rock-solid control of the most populous Arab nation and the cultural heart of the region.
With looting and arson fires rocking the capital, the president seemed faced with the choice between a deadly crackdown and major concessions to protesters demanding he step down this year and not hand power to his son, Gamal.
The once-unimaginable scenes of anarchy along the Nile played out on television and computer screens from Algiers to Riyadh, two weeks to the day after protesters in Tunisia drove out their autocratic president. Images of the protests in the smaller North African country emboldened Egyptians to launch four straight days of increasingly fearless demonstrations organized over mobile phone, Facebook and Twitter.
The government cut off the Internet and mobile-phone services in Cairo, called the army into the streets and imposed a nationwide night-time curfew. The extreme measures were ignored by tens of thousands of rich, poor and middle-class protesters who united in rage against a regime seen as corrupt, abusive and neglectful of the nearly half of Egypt's 80 million people who live below the poverty line of $2 a day.
"All these people want to bring down the government. That's our basic desire," said protester Wagdy Syed, 30. "They have no morals, no respect, and no good economic sense."
Mubarak made no public appearance or statement and other senior figures in the regime were also notably absent.
Egypt has been one of the United States' closest allies in the region since President Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel in 1979 after talks at Camp David.
Mubarak kept that deal after Sadat's 1981 assassination and has been a close partner of every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter, helping Washington exert its will on issues that range from suppressing Islamist violence to counterbalancing the rise of Iran's anti-American Shiite theocracy.
The government's self-declared crowning legacy has been its economic achievements: rising GDP and a surging private sector led by a construction boom and vibrant, seemingly recession-proof banks.
But many say the fruits of growth in this formerly socialist economy have been funneled almost entirely to a politically connected elite, leaving average Egyptians surrounded by unattainable symbols of wealth such as luxury housing and high-priced electronics as they struggle to find jobs, pay daily bills and find affordable housing.
Friday's unrest began when tens of thousands poured into the streets after noon prayers, stoning and confronting police who fired back with rubber bullets and tear gas. Demonstrators wielding rocks, glass and sticks chased hundreds of riot police away from the main square in downtown Cairo and several of the policemen stripped off their uniforms and badges and joined the demonstrators.
An Associated Press reporter saw the protesters cheering the police who joined them and hoisting them on their shoulders.
Security officials said there were protests in at least 11 of the country's 28 provinces, and unrest roiled major cities like Alexandria, Suez, Assiut and Port Said. At least one protester was killed Friday, bringing the death toll for the week of protest to eight. Demonstrators were seen dragging blooded, unconsciousness fellow protesters to waiting cars and on to hospitals, but no official number of wounded was immediately available.
The uprising united the economically struggling and the prosperous, the secular and the religious. The country's most popular opposition group, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, did not advertise its presence and it was not immediately clear how much of a role it played in bringing people to the streets.
Many protesters chanted "God is great!" and stopped their demonstrations to pray.
Young men in one downtown square clambered onto a statue of Talat Harb, a pioneering Egyptian economist, and unfurled a large green banner that proclaimed "The Middle Class" in white Arabic lettering.
Women dressed in black veils and wide, flowing robes followed women with expensive hairdos, tight jeans and American sneakers.
The crowd included Christian men with keyrings of the cross swinging from their pockets and young men dressed in fast-food restaurant uniforms.
When a man sporting a long beard and a white robe began chanting an Islamist slogan, he was grabbed and shaken by another protester telling him to keep the slogans patriotic and not religious.
Women were largely unmolested in a city where sexual harassment on the streets is persistent.
In downtown Cairo, people on balconies tossed cans of Pepsi and bottles of water to protesters on the streets below to douse their eyes, as well as onions and lemons to sniff, to cut the sting of the tear gas.
Junior lawmakers in the ruling party called in to national Egyptian TV calling on calm in the city.
The Obama administration appealed for Egyptian authorities to respect the rights of citizens and halt the crackdown on swelling anti-government protests. It again urged the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to bend toward demands for political and economic reform. The State Department urged Americans to defer any non-essential travel to Egypt.
The troubles were preventing trains from coming to Cairo, a city of 18 million people, security officials said.
Some of the most serious violence Friday was in Suez, where protesters seized weapons stored in a police station and asked the policemen inside to leave the building before they burned it down. They also set ablaze about 20 police trucks parked nearby. Demonstrators exchanged fire with policemen trying to stop them from storming another police station and one protester was killed in the gun battle.
In Assiut in southern Egypt, several thousand demonstrators clashed with police that set upon them with batons and sticks, chasing them through side streets.
Protesters appeared unfazed by the absence of Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, one of the country's leading pro-democracy advocates. The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency was soaked with a water cannon as protests erupted after Friday, and then prevented by police from leaving after he returned to his home.
The White House praised ElBaradei and said the government's policy of keeping him under house arrest had to change.
A Facebook page run by protesters listed their demands. They want Mubarak to declare that neither he nor his son will stand for next presidential elections; dissolve the parliament holds new elections; end to emergency laws giving police extensive powers of arrest and detention; release all prisoners including protesters and those who have been in jail for years without charge or trial; and immediately fire the interior minister.
Mubarak has not said yet whether he will stand for another six-year term as president in elections this year. He has never appointed a deputy and is thought to be grooming his son Gamal to succeed him despite popular opposition. According to leaked U.S. memos, hereditary succession also does not meet with the approval of the powerful military.
Egypt's four primary Internet providers - Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt, Etisalat Misr - all stopped moving data in and out of the country at 12:34 a.m. Friday, according to a network security firm monitoring the traffic. Telecom experts said Egyptian authorities could have engineered the unprecedented cutoff with a simple change to the instructions for the companies' networking equipment.
The Internet appeared to remain cut off in Cairo but was restored in some smaller cities Friday morning. Cell-phone text and Blackberry Messenger services were all cut or operating sporadically in what appeared to be a move by authorities to disrupt the organization of demonstrations.
Authorities appear to have been disrupting social networking sites used as an organizing tool by protesters throughout the week. Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry Messenger have all seen interruptions.
Associated Press reporters Sarah El Deeb, Maggie Michael and Diaa Hadid contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)