CAIRO — Facing the gravest challenge to his 30-year rule, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak refused to step down on Saturday after mobs set fire to his ruling party's headquarters and state security buildings, stormed police stations and confronted armored military vehicles in defiance of a nationwide curfew.
After a fourth straight day of protests calling for Mubarak's ouster exploded into running battles with police forces, who failed to impose order, Mubarak late Friday called in the army, which hadn't been deployed in Egyptian cities in decades. Well after nightfall, fires raged and gunfire echoed in Cairo, the capital, where thousands of demonstrators remained on the streets even as tanks moved through the city and military helicopters circled overhead.
Mubarak, a stalwart American ally, appeared on state television after midnight Saturday, the first time he'd addressed the nation since the protests began, and said that he'd dismissed his cabinet. But the 82-year-old dictator offered only vague assurances that he'd address some of the demonstrators' grievances — political repression, corruption, unemployment, low wages — and said that he'd maintain control despite "plots" to destabilize the country.
"There is a fine line separating freedom and chaos," Mubarak said. "And while I support the freedom of citizens to express their views, I also adhere to defending Egypt's stability and security."
Moments after he spoke, the Associated Press reported that the Egyptian Army had seized control of central Cairo's Tahrir ("Liberation") Square, sending protesters fleeing into side streets.
The crackdown came after massive crowds of Egyptians poured into the streets of Cairo and several other major cities following midday prayers, commandeering streets, squares and key government and security buildings. The Al Jazeera television network reported that a fire had gutted the provincial government building in the Mediterranean coast city of Alexandria, Egypt's second largest.
In Cairo, the headquarters of Mubarak's National Democratic Party were engulfed in flames, and looters reportedly laid siege to the building. A short distance away, a throng of protesters set fire to an abandoned armored police vehicle on a bridge spanning the Nile River and were rocking it back and forth, apparently trying to dump it overboard.
Opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and the former head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, was detained as he tried to join the protests and was placed under house arrest.
In Washington, President Barack Obama spoke to Mubarak after the Egyptian leader's speech and urged him to implement democratic overhauls and end the blackout on Internet and cell phones his government imposed to stifle the protests. But he stopped short of breaking ties with Mubarak, who's been a key U.S. ally on regional issues, including Iran's nuclear program and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
"I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise," Obama said. "Violence will not address the grievances of the Egyptian people and suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away."
Meanwhile, the State Department issued an alert urging Americans to avoid non-essential travel to Egypt, and some airlines canceled flights into Cairo.
The Egyptian government blocked Internet access and cell phone signals — a futile bid to stop the wave of popular protests that's swept the Arab world this month, starting with the popular uprising that toppled the dictatorial president of Tunisia. Arabic satellite channels broadcast the dramatic images from Egypt around the world, and Al Jazeera reported that demonstrators in Jordan, Qatar and other countries marched on Friday in solidarity.
Perhaps the fiercest battle of the day occurred in the port city of Suez, east of Cairo, where thousands of demonstrators surged through police firing rubber bullets and took over the main police station. The protesters dragged fleeing riot police off their motorbikes and seized their batons and equipment.
The protesters freed prisoners from the city jail, destroyed armored police vehicles and then sacked the building and looted its contents. After storming the police station, protesters removed its contents — refrigerators, desks, files and other equipment.
Al Jazeera reported that 11 people died in Suez and 20 were badly injured. The BBC quoted paramedics saying that more than 1,000 people were injured in Cairo, but there were no official figures.
"We've suffered for 30 years," said Mohammed Ali, a 40-year-old engineer in Suez who makes $100 a month. He told an American reporter, "Your government supports this government," and stormed off.
The protests have been a popular phenomenon, inspired by the revolt in Tunisia and galvanized by satellite channels and the Internet, lacking any single leader. ElBaradei returned to the country Thursday night in the hope of leading the movement but was quickly arrested.
"His detention has no credible basis. It also will not serve Egypt's interests at this critical juncture," Louise Arbour, president of the International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention organization, said in a statement. Arbour called on Egyptian authorities to "heed demands of the population for dramatic political, social and economic transformation."
News channels also reported that prominent Mubarak critic Ayman Nour was admitted to the hospital after a rock hit him in the back of the head. Nour's son appeared on Al Jazeera and said that his father was in intensive care.
Throughout the day, satellite television images showed police wearing anti-riot gear beating back protesters with batons and firing tear gas canisters at crowds that had taken over city squares and massed on bridges. Occasionally, the crowd threw the tear gas canisters — some of which carried the "Made in the U.S.A. label" — back at police.
Plumes of white smoke from the gas clouded Cairo's smog-choked skyline.
Mubarak, appearing on television in a dark suit and tie, said he regretted the innocent casualties. But unlike Tunisia's ousted leader, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who abruptly fled the country after several days of mass protests, Mubarak showed no signs of loosening his grip.
"The government is committed to my instructions, and this was clear in the way the police handled the demonstrations," Mubarak said.
Egyptians are seething over his party's near total control of the government, cemented by parliamentary elections last fall that saw his party win 97 percent of seats, and reports that he wants to bequeath the presidency to his son, Gamal.
Perhaps bizarrely, Mubarak appeared to take credit for the protests, arguing that he's allowed space for Egyptians to vent their anger and criticize him publicly — especially in comparison to the authoritarian leaders of other countries.
"There demonstrations . . . wouldn't have taken place without the huge space of freedom of expression, freedom of press and many other forms of freedom that were granted to the Egyptian people," he said.