Cairo: Looted stores, burned out cars and the stench of blazing tires filled the streets of Cairo early on Sunday as President Hosni Mubarak sought to bargain with angry crowds and security forces struggled to contain looters.
In five days of unprecedented protests that have rocked the Arab world, more than 100 people have been killed, investors and tourists have taken fright, Mubarak has offered a first glimpse of a plan to step down and 80 million long-suffering Egyptians are caught between hope for democratic reform and fear of chaos.
The United States and European powers were busy tearing up their Middle East policies, which have supported Mubarak at the head of the most populous Arab nation for 30 years, turning a blind eye to police brutality and corruption in return for a solid bulwark against first communism and now militant Islam.
The biggest immediate fear was of looting as all public order broke down. Mobs stormed into supermarkets, banks, jewellery shops and government buildings. Thieves at the Egyptian Museum damaged two mummies from the time of the pharaohs.
"They are letting Egypt burn to the ground," said Inas Shafik, 35.
On Saturday, the 82-year-old Mubarak bowed to protesters and named a vice-president for the first time, a move seen as lining up Omar Suleiman, hitherto his chief of intelligence, as an eventual successor, at least for a transition. Many also saw it as ending his son Gamal's long-surmised ambitions to take over.
Fearful of a descent into anarchy, some Egyptians may have been reassured by signs Mubarak may be readying a handover of power within the military establishment.
But those on the streets of Cairo, a teeming megalopolis of 15 million that is the biggest city in the Middle East, have scented weakness and remain impatient for Mubarak to go now.
"This is not acceptable. Mubarak must step down. Public unrest will not stop until this is achieved," Mohammed Essawy, a 26-year-old graduate student, said of the appointments.
In Washington, State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said: "The Egyptian government can't reshuffle the deck and then stand pat."
Since protesters toppled Tunisia's leader two weeks ago, demonstrations have spread across north Africa and the Middle East in an unprecedented wave of anger at authoritarian leaders, many of them entrenched for decades and enjoying US support.
"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."
As in Tunisia, Egypt's exploding young population, most of them underemployed and frustrated by oppression at the hands of a corrupt and rapacious elite, were demanding a full clear-out of the old guard, not just a reshuffle of the governing class.
Police shot dead 17 people in Bani Suef, south of Cairo, as street battles intensified in some towns, even as police seemed to leave much of Cairo to the Army, an institution generally respected by Egyptians and less associated with oppression.
According to various estimates more than 100 people have been killed during the week in Egypt's capital and other cities.
"Beginning of the end"
While clearly anxious to avoid an anarchic collapse that might destabilise a region vital to world oil supplies, Mubarak's allies in Western governments appear to share a sense that what has happened so far does not go far enough.
In Europe, the German, French and British leaders issued a joint statement thanking Mubarak for his contribution to stability in the Middle East -- Egypt led the way in agreeing to a peace with Israel -- but demanding that he now start the move to free elections, a move that would certainly end his power.
Of Suleiman's appointment, analyst Gamal Abdel Gawad Soltan said: "This is the beginning of a process of power transfer."
At the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jon Alterman said: "I can't see how this is not the beginning of the end of Mubarak's presidency. It seems that his task now is to try and manage the transition past his leadership."
If the plan is for Mubarak to hand power to Suleiman, it remains to be seen whether the population would tolerate him.
"He is just like Mubarak, there is no change," one protester said of Suleiman, a key figure at the top of Mubarak's inner circle and hated security apparatus.
The prospect of even greater upheaval across the Middle East is prompting some investors to see risks for oil supplies that could in turn hamper global economic growth.
Many saw Mubarak's concessions as echoes of those made two weeks ago by Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Just a day later, Ben Ali had fled his country, deserted by an army which preferred to back less hated figures in his government.
Like other Arab leaders, the President portrays himself as a bulwark against the West's Islamist enemies. But Egypt's banned opposition movement the Muslim Brotherhood has been only a small part of the week's events, and lays claim to moderation.
"A new era of freedom and democracy is dawning in the Middle East," Kamel El-Helbawy, a cleric from the Brotherhood said from exile in London. "Islamists would not be able to rule Egypt alone. We should and would cooperate."
First Published: Sunday, January 30, 2011, 11:29