Mubarak meets cabinet as Egypt uprising rolls on

5th February 2011, Comments 0 comments

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak huddled with his new government for the first time on Saturday, seeking a way out of an almost two-week popular uprising which shows no signs of abating.

The turmoil in Cairo loomed large over a meeting in Munich, Germany of the Middle East diplomatic Quartet, where US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the Middle East faced a bumpy road on the transition to democracy.

At the same time, Clinton praised the "restraint" shown by the Egyptian security forces during a mass demonstration on Friday, billed as the "day of departure" for Mubarak by protesters.

At least 300 people are believed to have been killed and thousands injured since the protests began on January 25, according to the United Nations.

With big crowds swelling anew in Tahrir Square, epicentre of a stubborn campaign to get Mubarak to stand down immediately, the veteran president met for the first time with the government he had sworn in five days earlier.

Present were his new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, the ministers of petroleum, trade, finance and social solidarity, and the head of the central bank, state news agency MENA reported.

In northern Sinai, a pipeline sending Egyptian gas to Jordan was attacked, officials said, prompting gas supplies to Israel to be halted as well. But it was unclear if the attack had any link to the anti-Mubarak movement.

Gunfire was heard in Tahrir Square in the early hours of Saturday as several thousands protesters spent a chilly night alongside Egyptian army tanks, regarded as protection from riot police or pro-Mubarak militants.

Witnesses said warning shots were fired by soldiers on the nearby October bridge over the River Nile to prevent a clash between pro- and anti-Mubarak groups.

The sound of some tanks outside the Egyptian Museum on the edge of the square starting their engines later in the morning prompted dozens of people to immediately sit down around them to prevent them from moving.

France on Saturday said it suspended sales of arms and riot police equipment to Egypt two weeks ago after the outbreak of the mass protests which have produced deadly clashes with police as well as between rival supporters.

In the latest reported fatality, Egyptian journalist Ahmed Mohammed Mahmud died on Friday of gunshot wounds sustained during clashes between Mubarak supporters and anti-government protesters, the state-owned Al-Ahram daily said.

Despite a return to relative calm, Egypt's stock exchange will not reopen on Monday, as previously announced, MENA reported. Banks, however, were due to resume business on Sunday.

Mubarak, 82, whose three decades as leader of the Arab world's most populous nation had gone unchallenged until now, has said he is "fed up" with his job, but prefers to stay in power until September while calm is restored.

But protesters -- inspired by the downfall of Tunisia's long-time president last month -- want Mubarak out immediately, while the European Union and the United States are stepping up pressure for a transition to begin.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which is refusing to negotiate with the government, has kept a low profile because it does not want the revolt to be seen as an Islamic revolution, a leader said in an interview to be published on Monday.

"It is an uprising of the Egyptian people," Rashad al-Bayoumi, a spokesman for the influential group, told the German weekly Der Spiegel.

George Ishaq of the opposition group Kefaya ("Enough" in Arabic), speaking on Al-Jazeera television, said on Saturday his secular group was opposed both to a religious state in a post-Mubarak Egypt and to foreign intervention.

The head of the pro-democracy group denied any rift between the uprising's secular and Islamic strands. "The opposition has demands which should be taken into account... The demands are united and we will hold on to them," he said.

Citing unnamed US and Egyptian officials, the New York Times reported on Saturday that new vice president Omar Suleiman and senior Egyptian military leaders are exploring ways for Mubarak to make a graceful exit.

Rather than go immediately, they said, Mubarak's powers would be scaled back, enabling the creation of a transitional government headed by Suleiman, the former intelligence chief, to negotiate reforms with the opposition.

In Munich, Clinton warned that a transition in Egypt could "backslide into just another authoritarian regime."

"Revolutions have overthrown dictators in the name of democracy, only to see the political process hijacked by new autocrats who use violence, deception, and rigged elections to stay in power, or to advance an agenda of extremism."

But she told her Quartet partners that "the status quo is simply not sustainable... Across the region, there must be clear and real progress toward open, transparent, fair, and accountable systems."

The Quartet -- comprising Russia, the United States, the European Union and United Nations -- is meeting this weekend to explore ways of reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

But their conclave was overshadowed by concern that regime change in Egypt -- the only Arab nation besides Jordan to have signed a peace treaty with Israel -- might undermine that quest.

"In view of the developments in the Middle East, the Quartet expressed its belief that further delay in the resumption of negotiations is detrimental to prospects for regional peace and security," the group said in a statement.

In a new blow to Egypt's tourist industry, Russia's federal tourism agency Rostourism called on the 28,000 Russians now on holiday there to return home, even if most are at relatively calm Red Sea resorts.

"Given the worsening of the domestic political situation in Egypt, which is accompanied by acts of violence in the cities, we draw the attention of all Russian tourists that they must return home," Rostourism said on its website.

© 2011 AFP

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