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Mubarak dismisses Cabinet as protests escalate<br> Leader clings to power as chaos engulfs Egypt

Facing a popular uprising, Egypt's president fired his Cabinet early today after protesters engulfed his country in chaos -- battling police with stones and firebombs, burning down the ruling party headquarters and defying a night curfew enforced by the army.

In a nationally televised address at midnight, President Hosni Mubarak made vague promises of social reform but did not offer to step down. He also defended his security forces, outraging protesters calling for an end to his nearly 30-year regime.

Pouring onto the streets after Friday noon prayers, protesters ignored extreme government measures that included cutting off the Internet and mobile-phone services in Cairo and other areas, calling the army into the streets and imposing a nationwide nighttime curfew.

Egypt's crackdown drew harsh criticism from the Obama administration and a threat to reduce a $1.5 billion foreign aid program if Washington's most important Arab ally escalates the use of force.

Stepping up the pressure, President Obama told a news conference that he had called Mubarak immediately after the Egyptian leader's television address and urged him to take "concrete steps" to expand rights and refrain from violence against protesters.

"The United States will continue to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people and work with their government in pursuit of a future that is more just, more free and more hopeful," Obama said.

Throughout Friday, flames rose in cities across Egypt, including Alexandria, Suez, Assiut and Port Said. Security officials reported protests in 11 of the country's 28 provinces.

Calling the anti-government protests "part of a bigger plot to shake the stability and destroy legitimacy" of Egypt's political system, a somber-looking Mubarak said: "We aspire for more democracy, more effort to combat unemployment and poverty and combat corruption."

Still, protesters interpreted his remarks as an attempt to cling to power rather than a pledge to take concrete steps to solve Egypt's pressing problems -- poverty, unemployment and rising food prices.

"Out, out, out!" protesters chanted during battles with riot police and the army, which was sent into the streets for the first time Friday during the crisis.

Protesters seized the streets of Cairo, battling police with stones and firebombs and burning down the ruling party headquarters. Many defied a 6 p.m. curfew, and long after midnight, crowds remained on the streets where buildings and tires were still burning and looting was widespread.

At least one protester was killed Friday, bringing the toll for the week to eight. Demonstrators were seen dragging bloodied, unconsciousness protesters to waiting cars and to hospitals.

Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading pro-democracy advocate, was soaked with a water cannon and briefly trapped inside a mosque after joining the protests. He later was placed under house arrest.

In the capital, hundreds of young men carted away televisions, fans and stereo equipment looted from the National Democratic Party, near the Egyptian Museum, home of King Tutankhamun's treasures. Young men formed a human barricade in front of the museum to protect one of Egypt's major tourist attractions.

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

Egypt's national airline halted flights for at least 12 hours. A Cairo airport official said some international airlines had canceled flights to the capital, at least overnight.

Lines were long in many supermarkets, where employees limited bread sales to 10 rolls per person.

Options appeared to be dwindling for Mubarak, an 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.

The scenes of anarchy along the Nile played out on television and computer screens from Algeria to Saudi Arabia, two weeks to the day after protesters in Tunisia drove out their autocratic president. Images of the protests in Tunisia emboldened Egyptians to take to the streets in demonstrations organized over mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter.

The demonstrators were united in rage against a regime seen as corrupt, abusive and uncaring toward the nearly half of Egypt's 80 million people who live below the poverty line.

Egypt has been one of the United States' closest allies in the region since President Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel at Camp David in 1977.

Mubarak kept that deal after Sadat's assassination and has been a close partner of every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter, helping on issues that range from suppressing Islamist violence to counterbalancing the rise of Iran's anti-American Shiite theocracy.

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