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Egyptian president defends security forces

CAIRO (AP) — Embattled President Hosni Mubarak has appeared on television for the first time since protests erupted demanding his ouster, and he says he will press ahead with social, economic and political reforms.

He is defending security forces’ crackdown on protesters.

Protesters have seized the streets of Cairo, battling police with stones and firebombs, burning down the ruling party headquarters, and defying a night curfew enforced by a military deployment. It is the peak of unrest posing the most dire threat to Mubarak in his three decades of authoritarian rule.

The government’s attempts to suppress demonstrations appeared to be swiftly eroding support from the U.S. — suddenly forced to choose between its most important Arab ally and a democratic uprising demanding his ouster. Washington threatened to reduce a $1.5 billion program of foreign aid if Mubarak escalated the use of force.

The protesters were sure to be emboldened by their success in bringing tens of thousands to the streets in defiance of a ban, a large police force, countless canisters of tear gas, and even a nighttime curfew enforced by the first military deployment of the crisis.

Flames rose in cities across Egypt as police cars burned and protesters set the ruling party headquarters in Cairo ablaze. Hundreds of young men tore televisions, fans and stereo equipment from other buildings of the National Democratic Party neighboring the Egyptian Museum, home of King Tutankhamun’s treasures and one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions.

Young men could be seen forming a human barricade in front of the museum to protect it.

Others around the city looted banks, smashed cars, tore down street signs and pelted armored riot police vehicles with paving stones torn from roadways.

“We are the ones who will bring change,” said 21-year-old Ahmed Sharif. “If we do nothing, things will get worse. Change must come!” he screamed through a surgical mask he wore to ward off the tear gas.

Egypt’s national airline halted flights for at least 12 hours and a Cairo Airport official said a number of international airlines had canceled flights to the capital, at least overnight. There were long lines at many supermarkets and employees limited bread sales to 10 rolls per person.

Options appeared to be dwindling for Mubarak, a 82-year-old former air force commander who until this week maintained what looked like rock-solid control of the most populous Arab nation and the cultural heart of the region.

With looting and arson fires rocking the capital, Mubarak seemed faced with the choice between a deadly crackdown and major concessions to protesters demanding he step down this year and not hand power to his son, Gamal.

The once-unimaginable scenes of anarchy along the Nile played out on television and computer screens from Algiers to Riyadh, two weeks to the day after protesters in Tunisia drove out their autocratic president. Images of the protests in the smaller North African country emboldened Egyptians to launch four straight days of increasingly fearless demonstrations organized over mobile phone, Facebook and Twitter.

The government cut off the Internet and mobile-phone services in Cairo, called the army into the streets and imposed a nationwide night-time curfew. The extreme measures were ignored by tens of thousands of rich, poor and middle-class protesters who united in rage against a regime seen as corrupt, abusive and neglectful of the nearly half of Egypt’s 80 million people who live below the poverty line of $2 a day.

“All these people want to bring down the government. That’s our basic desire,” said protester Wagdy Syed, 30. “They have no morals, no respect, and no good economic sense.”

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