Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak huddled with his new government for the first time yesterday, looking for ways to defuse a popular uprising which, on its 12th day, showed no signs of abating.
The turmoil in Cairo loomed large over a meeting in Munich, Germany, of the Middle East diplomatic Quartet, where US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the region was confronting “a perfect storm of powerful trends.”
At the same time, Clinton praised the “restraint” shown by the Egyptian security forces during a mass demonstration on Friday, billed as the “day of departure” for Mubarak by the protesters.
It is believed that at least 300 people have been killed, and thousands injured, since the protests began on Jan. 25, the UN has said.
With big crowds swelling anew in Tahrir Square, epicenter of a stubborn campaign to get Mubarak to stand down immediately, Mubarak met for the first time with the government he had sworn in five days earlier.
Present were new Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, the ministers of petroleum, trade, finance and social solidarity, and the head of the central bank, the state MENA news agency reported.
Gunfire was heard in Tahrir Square early yesterday as several thousand protesters spent a chilly night alongside Egyptian army tanks, regarded as protection from riot police or pro-Mubarak mobs.
Witnesses said the gunfire was warning shots fired by soldiers on the nearby October bridge over the River Nile to stop a clash between pro and anti-Mubarak groups.
The sound of some of the tanks in front of the Egyptian Museum starting up their engines later in the morning prompted dozens to immediately sit down around them to prevent them from moving.
“The army and the people are two-into-one,” crowds chanted, as soldiers bearing AK-47 assault rifles stood in a row a few meters away.
“We are sitting here to stop the army from removing our barricade” composed of charred police cars, said protester Mohammed Gamal, 24, who held a blue plastic tube as protection against thugs.
Citing unnamed US and Egyptian officials, the New York Times reported yesterday that Vice President Omar Suleiman and senior Egyptian military leaders are exploring ways for Mubarak to make an exit.
Rather than go immediately, the sources said, Mubarak’s powers would be scaled back, enabling the creation of a transitional government headed by Suleiman, the former intelligence chief. That government would in turn negotiate, with opposition figures, amendments to Egypt’s constitution and other democratic changes.
Meanwhile, a pipeline in northern Sinai sending Egyptian gas to Jordan was attacked, officials said, prompting gas supplies to Israel to be halted as well. But it was unclear if the attack had any link to the anti-Mubarak movement.
An explosion set off a massive fire that was contained after officials shut off the flow of gas to Jordan, officials said.
There were no reports of casualties from the blast at a gas terminal in the Sinai town of El-Arish. The explosion sent a pillar of flames leaping into the sky, but was a safe distance from the nearest homes, regional governor Abdel Wahab Mabrouk said.
The cause of the explosion was not clear. Mabrouk told Egyptian media he suspected “sabotage,” but did not explain further.
The Sinai Peninsula, home to Bedouin tribesmen, has been the scene of clashes between residents and security forces. It borders both Israel and the Gaza Strip.