CAIRO // The leadership of Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) including President Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal, resigned yesterday in an apparent attempt to defuse a popular uprising which, in its 12th day, shows no signs of abating.
State TV, announcing the resignations, still identified Mr Mubarak as the head of state and president of the ruling party, in an indication that he will try to remain in authority.
Tens of thousands of anti-Mubarak protesters braved misty and chilly weather yesterday to keep a defiant grip on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the nationwide protests. They cheered the resignations of the ruling party members – who included some of the country’s most powerful, and unpopular, political figures – as a victory in their struggle to unseat Mr Mubarak, 82, who has ruled for 30 years.
But most chided the move as a ruse intended to keep the president in power, and they vowed to press on with the uprising despite apparent efforts by the army to choke off the flow of people into the square by erecting new checkpoints and introducing stricter security measures.
The announcement of the resignations came just hours after Mr Mubarak, for the first time, met members of his new cabinet while his new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, held talks with protest leaders that were reportedly aimed at exploring a transition of power leading to free and fair elections within the bounds of the constitution.
The new vice president, Omar Suleiman, and senior Egyptian military leaders are exploring ways for Mr Mubarak to make a graceful exit from the presidency, The New York Times reported, citing unnamed US and Egyptian officials. Rather than go immediately, the sources said, Mr Mubarak’s powers would be scaled back to allow a transitional government headed by Mr Suleiman, the former intelligence chief.
Mr Suleiman later met with prominent independent and mainstream opposition figures, state television said, indicating furious behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Mr Mubarak has insisted he will remain in his post until the end of his term, this autumn.
The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, told a security conference in Munich that the status quo in Egypt – and the wider Middle East – “is simply not sustainable”.
Mrs Clinton warned of a brewing “perfect storm” of economic woes, repression and popular discontent across the region, and urged international support for reforms pledged by Egypt’s leaders to ensure extremists did not hijack any political transition.
In Washington, however, US President Barack Obama’s special envoy, Frank Wiser, referred to Mr Mubarak as an “old friend” of the US and said that he should stay in office during a democratic transition.
In a potential sign of the instability feared by Washington, Egypt halted natural-gas exports through a pipeline feeding Israel and Jordan after a fire at the facility, Egypt’s oil ministry said.
The state-run Middle East News Agency said the closure was aimed at limiting damage caused by an explosion carried out by “subversive elements”, although the oil ministry said the fire was caused by a gas leak.
Writing in today’s The National, Egypt’s Grand mufti, Dr Ali Gomaa, said the time had come for “tangible results” to answer the demands of protesters who wanted an end to Mr Mubarak’s reign. “Steps must be undertaken to ensure that implementation of serious reform measures is immediate and direct,” he said.
The UAE’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, also urged a reconciliation in Egypt, where the UN estimates that 300 people have died in the unrest, initially inspired, in part, by protests in Tunisia that forced veteran strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali to flee last month.
“Egypt is a regional heavyweight player and what affects it and its people has far-reaching implications on all of us … we are looking forward that Egypt will remain as we always known it – a country of tolerance, love, refinement and a melting pot of all religions and faiths,” Sheikh Abdullah said on a visit to Iraq, according to the state news agency, WAM.
In Tahrir Square, protesters said they were not giving up, despite continuing tensions with Mubarak loyalists who attacked them earlier in the week and the fact that their numbers are starting to dwindle. Many laughed off the ruling party resignations.
“Mubarak wants to appease the people so he gives them a few concessions, but the people won’t accept this. The people want one thing, the whole regime must go, starting with him,” said Mohammed Sayyid, 23, who, like thousands of others, had been waiting for hours to cross the Qasr al Nile Bridge that leads to Tahrir Square.
“These are not gains for the protesters; this is a trick by the regime. This is not fulfilling our demands. These are red herrings,” said Bilal Fathi, 22.
The military yesterday placed two tanks at the entrance to the bridge and soldiers were patting people down as they filed through the checkpoint, one by one.
The protesters also had to pass through a similar checkpoint, lined with wire, at the entrance to the square itself, causing a bottleneck that stretched more than half a kilometre. Some protesters accused the military of trying to weaken the protests.
“It’s terrible,” said Eslam Abdul Qader, 21, another protester waiting to re-enter the square amid chants for Mr Mubarak to step down. “Egypt TV is saying we are being paid by foreigners to come here. This is a lie from the government. We are true democratic activists.”
Earlier in the day, an Egyptian army commander again tried to persuade the crowd in the square to end the protest. “You all have the right to express yourselves, but please save what is left of Egypt. Look around you,” Hassan al Roweny said, using a loudspeaker and standing on a podium.
The crowd responded with shouts that Mr Mubarak should resign, at which Mr al Roweny stepped down saying: “I will not speak amid such chants.”
Among those on the six-member party steering committee that stepped down yesterday was the NDP secretary general, Safwat el Sharif, and the president’s son, Gamal, who has long been seen as his father’s intended heir as president.
The turmoil has crushed those ambitions, however, with Mr Suleiman promising in the past week that Gamal will not run for president in September.
A new committee was named, headed by Hossam Badrawy, who also replaced Gamal as head of a separate policies committee.
The new body largely consisted of young figures, one of the new appointees, Mohammed Kamal, said. “It’s a good change. It reflects the mood of change that is sweeping the country.”
The move suggested that the military figures now dominating the regime – including Mr Suleiman and Mr Shafiq – judged that dumping party veterans was the price for getting enough of the opposition to accept Mr Mubarak’s continuing to stay in power.
Mr Mubarak, whose leadership of the Arab world’s most populous nation went unchallenged until now, has said he was “fed up” with his job, but preferred to stay in power until September, while calm is restored.