Cairo With protests raging, Egypt’s president named his intelligence chief as his first-ever vice president on Saturday, setting the stage for a successor as chaos engulfed the capital. Soldiers stood by — a few even joining the demonstrators — and the death toll from five days of anti-government fury rose sharply to 74.
Saturday’s fast-moving developments across the north African nation marked a sharp turning point in President Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule of Egypt.
Residents and shopkeepers in affluent neighborhoods boarded up their houses and stores against looters, who roamed the streets with knives and sticks, stealing what they could and destroying cars, windows and street signs. Gunfire rang out in some neighborhoods.
Tanks and armored personnel carriers fanned out across the city of 18 million, guarding key government buildings, and major tourist and archaeological sites. Among those singled out for special protection was the Egyptian Museum, home to some of the country’s most treasured antiquities, and the Cabinet building. The military closed the pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo — Egypt’s premier tourist site.
But soldiers made no moves against protesters, even after a curfew came and went and the crowds swelled in the streets, demanding an end to Mubarak’s rule and no handoff to the son he had been grooming to succeed him.
“This is the revolution of people of all walks of life,” read black graffiti scrolled on one army tank in Tahrir Square. “Mubarak, take your son and leave,” it said.
Thousands of protesters defied the curfew for the second night, standing their ground in the main Tahrir Square in a resounding rejection of Mubarak’s attempt to hang onto power with promises of reform and a new government.
Police protecting the Interior Ministry near the site opened fire at a funeral procession for a dead protester, possibly because it came too close to the force. Clashes broke out and at least two people were killed.
A 43-year-old teacher, Rafaat Mubarak, said the appointment of the president’s intelligence chief and longtime confidant, Omar Suleiman, as vice president did not satisfy the protesters.
“This is all nonsense. They will not fool us anymore. We want the head of the snake,” he said in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria. “If he is appointed by Mubarak, then he is just one more member of the gang. We are not speaking about a branch in a tree, we are talking about the roots.”
The crackdown on protesters has drawn harsh criticism from the Obama administration and even a threat Friday to reduce a $1.5 billion foreign aid program if Washington’s most important Arab ally escalates the use of force.
Thousands of passengers were stranded at Cairo’s airport as flights were canceled or delayed, leaving them unable to leave because of a government-imposed curfew. Several Arab nations, meanwhile, moved to evacuate their citizens.
The cancelations of flights and the arrival of several largely empty aircraft appeared to herald an ominous erosion of key tourism revenue.
The protesters united in one overarching demand — Mubarak and his family must go. The movement is a culmination of years of simmering frustration over a government they see as corrupt, heavy-handed and neglectful of poverty.