CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt remains locked in a political standoff Saturday with anti-government protesters demanding the immediate resignation of President Hosni Mubarak but the leader refuses to step down.
Tens of thousands of anti-Mubarak demonstrators gathered in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square Saturday, the 12th day of their protests which have largely closed down ordinary business across the country.
But Egypt's prime minister took steps to return the country to normal and suggested that a resolution to the crisis can be reached without the immediate removal of Mubarak.
Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq said on state TV that the government may be able to ride out protests and reach a deal with its opponents without Mubarak's ouster.
A defiant Shafiq said a 100,000-strong demonstration Friday failed to force Mubarak out as protesters hoped. "We haven't been affected and God willing next Friday we won't be affected," he said. "All this leads to stability."
The prime minister met with leaders of the anti-government protests to ease President Hosni Mubarak out of office, according to local reports. But the talks have reached a stalemate over the issue of Mubarak’s departure.
International leaders added to pressure on Mubarak in efforts to find a resolution to Egypt’s crisis.
"The status quo is simply not sustainable," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a security conference in Munich Saturday, referring not only to the situation in Egypt but in the wider Middle East.
"President Mubarak has announced he will not stand for reelection nor will his son ... He has given a clear message to his government to lead and support this process of transition," said Clinton to a security conference in Munich where world leaders will discuss how to proceed.
"That is what the government has said it is trying to do, that is what we are supporting, and hope to see it move as orderly but as expeditiously as possible under the circumstances," said Clinton, according to Reuters.
Clinton repeated widespread reports that there had been an assassination attempt on Mubarak’s vice-president Omar Suleiman, although the Egyptian government has denied the reports.
In another sign of continuing chaos, saboteurs blew up a gas pipeline in northern Egypt overnight, disrupting flows to Israel and also to Jordan, where protesters angered by economic hardship have been demanding a more democratic political system.
Mubarak, who has reshuffled his government but refused to resign, met some of the new ministers on Saturday, the state news agency said, in a clear rebuff to the hundreds of thousands of people who have demanded the 82-year-old leader step down.
Trade Minister Samiha Fawzi said after the meeting that exports from Egypt were down 6 percent in January due to the unrest and curfew in the country. Authorities were providing extra food supplies to avoid shortages, she said.
Leaders of Egypt's unprecedented wave of anti-government protests have held talks with the prime minister over ways to ease President Hosni Mubarak out of office. Under one proposal, the 82-year-old leader would hand his powers to his vice president, though not his title immediately, to give him a dignified exit.
Mubarak has staunchly refused to leave, insisting on serving out the rest of his term until September, and his aides have repeatedly said in recent days that the country's leader of nearly 30 years must not be dumped in a humiliating way.
The protesters, in turn, say they will not stop their giant rallies or enter substantive negotiations on democratic reform until Mubarak quits.
Thousands continued to gather Saturday in Cairo's central Tahrir Square, a day after some 100,000 protesters massed there demanding Mubarak leave power immediately.
A few blocks from Tahrir Square, volunteer doctors are running an emergency medical clinic to care for injured demonstrators.
Raad Abbas Mohamed waits impatiently on a dusty carpet lying on the floor of the mosque-turned-hospital. Blood seeps through a white bandage wrapped around his head, and his toes are covered in wet plaster from a fresh cast on his right foot.
After being pelted with chunks of brick during a massive street fight with pro-government protesters earlier this week, Mohamed limps when he tries to walk.
Still, he is ready to go back out into the battle.
“I feel like a hero. Like someone who has served my country,” said Mohamed, 21, a university student from Upper Egypt. “As soon as I can walk again, I will be back up defending the lines of Tahrir.”
Tens of thousands of jubilant Egyptians — many wearing bandages bloodied from clashes on previous days — continued protesting against their government in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday, billed as a peaceful “Day of Departure” by demonstrators seeking the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
While Friday proved to be a day largely devoid of violence, the previous two days of raging street battles left many demonstrators in Tahrir on edge.
By nightfall, the mood in the narrow side streets surrounding the square was tense, as gunshots rang out in the skies over Egypt’s capital. Young pro-reformers fortified their defensive positions, setting up sheet-metal barricades and gathering rock weapons into piles for easy access.
In an open-air mosque wedged between two apartment buildings, volunteer doctors and nurses run a makeshift medical unit to treat injured demonstrators. They, too, were entrenched, receiving supplies and expanding their staff in preparation for a protracted battle on the streets of Cairo.
The festive street party just a block away in Tahrir Square, said medical staff, belied a false sense that the violence in Egypt’s uprising was over.
"When I hear gunshots outside our hospital, it makes me feel like we’re in Baghdad,” said Islam Abdel Rahman, 27, an anesthesiologist volunteering at the Tahrir center. “But I still come because I’ve always believed life is about helping others more than we help ourselves.”
Even on quiet days in the Tahrir Square field hospital, doctors in white jackets race around the crowded, bustling room to orders blaring out from a central megaphone hanging near the pharmacy.
What began as a minor medical operation on the grassy center of Tahrir has now become a fully operational health clinic run on the green carpets of the mosque.
More than 100 doctors have volunteered to help over a thousand patients injured in clashes over the past week, working in four-hour shifts around the clock.
Intravenous medicine bags hang from hooks on upright electric fans that circulate air in the mosque's space that is crowded with patients.
Large wooden cubbyholes that once held shoes, which Muslims remove before entering a mosque, are now stuffed with gauze, elastic strips, and boxes of painkillers. Unknown Object
Hanging carpets divide the center’s general surgery, ophthalmology and intensive care units.
Several youth activists working at the clinic have even set up a media center, documenting patient injuries and promoting the hospital through their new Facebook page.
“Our operation is much like this uprising — it started up in just one day,” said Hassan Mohamed, who coordinates social media at the hospital. “If a nation can launch a revolution in a day, then we figured we could build a hospital in the same time.”
A quiet day of protest in the square still means lots of work for doctors.
Several patients checked in on Friday with older, untended injuries, following violent clashes in Tahrir on Wednesday that saw thousands of pro- and anti-government supporters lobbing rocks and Molotov cocktails at each other throughout the day.
Wednesday's attacks, which included pro-Mubarak supporters charging on horse and camelback, left hundreds injured. Several patients were admitted with bullet and knife wounds, according to staff.
Doctors have not been immune to the increasing tension near Tahrir.
Dr. Mohamed Basyouny, 26, said a knife-wielding pro-Mubarak supporter slashed him in the right thigh while walking home earlier this week.
“Yesterday the police beat me with a stick near the entrance, even though I told them I was a doctor,” said Ilham al Samahy, 56, an intensive care doctor. “It’s horrible — why would they not let a doctor pass through?”
Military checkpoints, along with citizen roadblocks, have been established around the perimeter of Tahrir to prevent other clashes.
Staff in the pharmacy unit, however, complained that security forces were attempting to halt the delivery of drugs.
Then again, most of the doctors at the center are anti-government protesters themselves.
At least two doctors wore stickers with anti-government slogans, such as “To Hell You Go Mubarak.”
Several of the doctors said they are inspired by their patients who came in with injuries, and spent only a few hours recovering before heading right back out to Tahrir.
“I would like to be out there myself,” said Nabil el Embaby, 33, an orthopedic surgeon. “But I’m a doctor, and my part of this uprising means helping others in here.”