Cairo: President Hosni Mubarak, clinging to power despite unprecedented demands for an end to his 30-year rule, met on Sunday with the powerful military which is widely seen as holding the key to Egypt`s future.
Mubarak held talks with Vice President Omar Suleiman, whose appointment on Saturday has possibly set the scene for a transition in power, Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Chief of Staff Sami al-Anan and other senior commanders.
An earthquake of unrest is shaking Mubarak`s authoritarian grip on Egypt and the high command`s support is vital as other pillars of his ruling apparatus crumble, political analysts said as protests entered their sixth day.
Amidst a heavy military presence, up to 4,000 people gathered in Cairo`s Tahrir Square, which has become a rallying point to express anger at poverty, repression and corruption in the Arab world`s most populous nation.
Warplanes and helicopters flew over the square and by late afternoon extra army trucks appeared in an apparent attempt to enforce a curfew through a show of military force.
"Hosni Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, both of you are agents of the Americans," shouted protesters, referring to the appointment of intelligence chief Suleiman as vice president, the first time Mubarak has appointed a deputy in 30 years of office.
It was the position Mubarak, a key U.S. ally, held before he become president and many saw the appointment as ending his son Gamal`s long-predicted ambitions to take over and as an attempt to reshape the administration to placate reformists.
Clearly those in Tahrir Square did not wish to see Mubarak`s ruling structure replaced by a military line-up featuring his closest cronies. "Mubarak, Mubarak, the plane awaits," said demonstrators, intent on getting rid of the old guard.
Shockwaves around Middle East
The turmoil, in which more than 100 people have died, has sent shock waves through the Middle East where other autocratic rulers may face similar challenges, and unsettled financial markets around the globe as well as Egypt`s allies in the West.
The final straw seems to have been parliamentary elections in November last year, which observers said authorities rigged to exclude the opposition and secure Mubarak`s ruling party a rubber-stamp parliament.
The military response to the crisis has been ambivalent. Troops now guard key buildings after police lost control of the streets, but have neglected to enforce a curfew, often fraternizing with protesters rather than confronting them.
It remains to be seen if the armed forces will keep Mubarak in power, or decide he is a liability to Egypt`s national interests, and their own. It was also unclear if Mubarak had decided to talk with the generals or if he was summoned by them.
It was Tunisian generals who persuaded former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee last month after weeks of protests.
The crisis deepened on Sunday with Egyptians facing lawlessness on the streets with security forces and citizens trying to stop rampaging looters.
Through the night, Cairo residents armed with clubs, chains and knives formed vigilante groups to guard neighborhoods from marauders after the unpopular police force withdrew following the deadly clashes with protesters.
As a result the army has deployed in bigger numbers across Egypt, easing some of the panic over law and order. In central Cairo, army check points were set up at some intersections.
"The armed forces urged all citizens to abide by the curfew precisely and said it would deal with violators strictly and firmly," state television issued a statement.
Residents expressed hope the army, revered in Egypt and less associated with daily repression than the police and security agencies, would restore order.
"People are terrified by these outlaws on the streets looting, attacking and destroying," said Salah Khalife, an employee at a sugar company.
Army tanks and tracked vehicles stood at the capital`s street corners, guarding banks as well as government offices including Interior Ministry headquarters. State security fought with protesters trying to attack the building on Saturday night.
Tanks sprayed with slogans
In surreal scenes, soldiers from Mubarak`s army stood by tanks covered in anti-Mubarak graffiti: "Down with Mubarak. Down with the despot. Down with the traitor. Pharaoh out of Egypt."
Asked how they could let protesters scrawl anti-Mubarak slogans on their vehicles, one soldier said: "These are written by the people, it`s the views of the people."
Egypt`s sprawling armed forces -- the world`s 10th biggest and more than 468,000-strong -- have been at the heart of power since army officers staged the 1952 overthrow of the king. It benefits from about $1.3 billion a year in US military aid.
So far, the protest movement seems to have no clear leader or organization even if Mubarak did wish to open a dialogue.
Prominent activist Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Laureate for his work with the U.N. nuclear agency, returned to Egypt from Europe to join the protests. But many Egyptians feel he has not spent enough time in the country.
The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist opposition group, has also stayed in the background, although several of its senior officials have been rounded up. The government has accused it of planning to exploit the protests.
Thirty-four members of the Brotherhood, including seven of its leaders, walked out of prison on Sunday after relatives of prisoners overcame the guards, a Brotherhood official said. The Brotherhood has called on Egyptians to keep up their protests.
Prisoners have escaped from several major prisons across Egypt after police morale and discipline started to break down. In many parts of Egypt police have abandoned their stations.
State television largely ignored protests until Friday, the biggest day when a curfew was announced. Since then it has given more coverage but has focused on disorder and shown pictures of small protests, not the mass gatherings.
The government has interfered with Internet access and mobile phone signals to try and disrupt demonstrators` plans.
Tumult hits tourists
The tumult was affecting Egypt`s tourist industry and the United States and Turkey said they were offering evacuation flights for citizens anxious to leave. Other governments advised their citizens to leave Egypt or to avoid traveling there.
The United States and European powers were busy reworking their Middle East policies, which have supported Mubarak, turning a blind eye to police brutality and corruption in return for a bulwark against first communism and now militant Islam.
"This is the Arab world`s Berlin moment," said Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics, comparing the events to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. "The authoritarian wall has fallen, and that`s regardless of whether Mubarak survives."