CAIRO, Jan 29 – Egypt\’s embattled President Hosni Mubarak on Saturday addressed the nation for the first time since deadly protests erupted against his regime, vowing reform but showing no sign of relaxing his decades-old grip on power.
US President Barack Obama called on the Egyptian authorities not to use violence against the political protests, driving home his message in a 30-minute phone call with Mubarak.
Four days after angry protesters first took to the street and with at least 27 people killed in subsequent street battles, a stony-faced Mubarak said he had sacked the government and would pursue economic and political reforms.
"I have asked the government to resign and tomorrow there will be a new government," Mubarak, 82, said on state television as protests raged in Cairo and other cities despite a night-time curfew.
"We will not backtrack on reforms. We will continue with new steps which will ensure the independence of the judiciary and its rulings, and more freedom for citizens," he said.
Protesters who have been demanding Mubarak step down, as well as an end to endemic state corruption and police brutality that have become systematic under his rule, dismissed the speech as too little, too late.
"We don\’t care if the government resigns, we want him to resign," said demonstrator Khaled, 22, in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria.
Student Abdo, 20, said: "Prices are still high, the problems are still there, this doesn\’t solve anything."
In Cairo, hundreds of demonstrators defied an overnight curfew and gathered in the city centre, climbing onto army tanks and throwing rocks at police.
Thirteen people died in clashes with police on Friday in the canal city of Suez, at least five in Cairo and two in Mansura, north of the capital, with many fatalities caused by rubber-coated bullets, medics and witnesses said.
Seven more people died on Wednesday and Thursday.
Key allies including the United States, Britain and Germany on Friday expressed concern about the violence, with Britain saying the protesters had "legitimate grievances."
Obama urged Mubarak to take "concrete" steps towards political reforms, saying he must turn "a moment of volatility" into "a moment of promise."
"I want to be very clear in calling upon the Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters," Obama said, after aides said the White House was readying for any possible political scenarios in Egypt.
Obama\’s warning came as Washington toughened its line on Mubarak\’s government, a key Middle Eastern ally, warning it would review billions of dollars in aid to Egypt based on the behaviour of the security forces.
Egypt is one of the world\’s largest recipients of US aid, receiving $1.3 billion annually in military assistance alone.
Thousands of people ignored an overnight 6:00 pm (1600 GMT) to 7:00 am curfew in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez announced by state television, with many protesters urging soldiers to join them.
"The army and the people, together!" protesters chanted outside the television building.
Soldiers made V-for-victory signs near Cairo\’s opera house more than two hours after the curfew began, as some civilians clambered aboard the armoured vehicles.
Protesters poured out of mosques after Friday prayers and ran rampant through the streets, throwing stones and torching two police stations. Police chased them with batons, firing tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets.
Demonstrators torched the Cairo headquarters of Mubarak\’s ruling National Democratic Party, with television showing footage of the building overlooking the Nile still burning on Saturday morning.
In Suez, protesters overran a police station, seized weapons and set fire to security force vehicles.
The demonstrations, inspired by events in Tunisia, are the largest in Egypt in the three decades of Mubarak\’s rule, sending shock waves across the region.
In addition to the 27 people reported killed, hundreds more have been injured and some 1,000 arrested since the protests erupted on Tuesday.
Looting broke out in several parts of Cairo after nightfall, including at government-linked offices in the upmarket Mohandeseen neighbourhood, with people taking office equipment without any police intervention.
Internet connections were cut across Egypt early on Friday, while mobile phone signals were patchy and text messaging inoperative, affecting the ability of protesters to communicate.
US media sounded a discordant note, with some newspapers calling for a re-evaluation of US-Egyptian relations and others advocating caution.
"Rather than calling on an intransigent ruler to implement \’reforms,\’ the administration should be attempting to prepare for the peaceful implementation of the opposition platform," The Washington Post said in an editorial.
But The Los Angeles Times called Egypt and Mubarak strong US allies in a region rife with anti-Americanism.
"No one expects the United States to advocate regime change," it said. "Nor is it likely to condition the more than $1 billion in economic and military aid it sends to Egypt each year on political reform (though that is a course we would support)."
The financial world was also concerned, with Fitch ratings agency saying it had revised its ratings outlook for Egypt to negative. Continuing unrest would threaten economic and financial performance, it said.
In Washington, the Pentagon said the visiting Egyptian army\’s chief of staff and other senior officers departed on Friday, cutting short a planned week-long visit.