CAIRO — The Egyptian capital descended into near-anarchy Friday night, as the government sent riot police, and then the army, to quell protests by tens of thousands of demonstrators determined to push President Hosni Mubarak from office.
By the end of the daylong battle, the protesters were still standing and the police were nowhere to be seen. Mubarak, who had not spoken publicly since the protests began Tuesday, made a televised speech after midnight, announcing that he had asked his Cabinet to resign. The move fell far short of protesters' demands, and seemed likely to ensure that the antigovernment demonstrations that have erupted here would continue.
President Barack Obama said a short time later that he had talked with the Egyptian president after his speech and pressed Mubarak to make long-promised reforms. "What is needed are concrete steps to advance the rights of the Egyptian people," Obama said.
Egypt's crackdown even drew a threat Friday to reduce a $1.5 billion foreign aid program if Washington's most important Arab ally escalates the use of force.
"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, and security officials said there were protests in 11 of the country's 28 provinces. It remained unclear late Friday night what role the Egyptian military might play. Mubarak, a former air force officer, draws much of his strength from the military, and any decision by the armed forces to withdraw support would mean the certain end of his reign.
But unlike the police, which unleashed an arsenal of weapons against the demonstrators, the military did not take any immediate action, and protesters gleefully welcomed the soldiers' arrival in a thundering of personnel carriers.
Protesters were honking their horns in celebration and roaming freely through central parts of the city late in the evening, in defiance of a curfew. The night air was thick with black smoke, and the sounds of explosions, gunshots, sirens, cries and occasional cheers echoed through the darkness.
The protests were the most serious in Egypt's modern history. Protesters have called for Mubarak, who at 82 has ruled this country with an iron fist for 30 years, to give up his position, leave the country and allow fresh elections.
Success in ousting Mubarak would be a remarkable achievement for a group of demonstrators who have no charismatic leaders, little organization and few clear objectives beyond removing this nation's autocratic president and other members of his ruling clique.
Before this week, few thought a mass antigovernment movement was possible in Egypt, a country that has little experience with democracy. But after Friday's protests, the campaign to oust Mubarak only seems to be gathering strength.
Egyptian demonstrators are hoping to replicate the success of pro-democracy advocates in Tunisia, who earlier this month ousted their autocratic president and sparked a wave of imitators across the region. Because Egypt has long been seen as the center of the Arab world, the end of Mubarak's reign would reverberate particularly deeply.
The government had worked to keep the protests from even happening. It took extraordinary measures to block communications, cutting all Internet connections and mobile phone networks. Overnight Thursday, dozens of opposition leaders were rounded up and arrested. At dawn Friday, thousands of riot police filled the streets of Cairo.
Mohamed ElBaradei, a political reform advocate and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who returned to Egypt to participate, was soaked with a water cannon and later placed under house arrest. ElBaradei, the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has said he wants to lead Egypt in a peaceful transition to democratic government.
The protests started small, but the gatherings soon swelled, and the police tactics escalated. Throughout afternoon and evening, security services fired hundreds of tear-gas shells, gunned down unarmed protesters and beat them with clubs. Despite those efforts, the protesters continued to surge toward downtown Cairo and, after dark, began setting fire to police vehicles and government buildings, as well as the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party.
Despite calls by Egypt's main opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, for members to join the movement, this week's protests have been decidedly secular. Demonstrators, most of whom appear to be members of the nation's middle class, said their campaign has little to do with religion.
"We need a just government. It doesn't matter whether it's Islamic or secular. The issue is justice," said Mustafa Reda, a 22-year-old whose eyes were bloodshot and throat raw from choking down tear gas.
It was unclear how many protesters were killed or injured during Friday's mayhem. At one point in Cairo, an armored personnel carrier steered directly into a swarm of demonstrators. A police officer firing from a hatch in the roof gunned down at least two men. When fellow protesters tried to drive the wounded men away, police stopped their vehicle, forced all able-bodied occupants out, and relentlessly beat them in the middle of the street.
Throughout the afternoon, protesters and police waged pitched battles from either side of three majestic bridges that span the Nile. Police would send tear-gas canisters soaring from one end of the bridge to the other, and temporarily force the protesters to flee. But each time, the protesters surged back, and, just after dusk, they forced the police into a full retreat across one of the spans.
Elsewhere in the Mideast, thousands of protesters gathered in Jordan, but Yemen and other restive locales in the region stayed relatively quiet Friday.
Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, the most influential Arab satellite channels, broadcast nonstop coverage of the demonstrations.
"This is a moment, and we're definitely going to see change," said Laith Shubailat, a veteran dissident in Jordan.
Thousands took to the streets there Friday after prayers in peaceful demonstrations. In central Amman, many of them chanted, "We want change," with banners and slogans decrying high food prices and demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai.
The demonstrations in Jordan have marked the first serious challenge to the decade-old rule of King Abdullah II, a critical U.S. ally in the region.
Because direct criticism of the king is banned, the focus has been on his government. Journalists, students and retired generals have taken the unusual step in recent months of attacking corruption, restrictions on freedom of political expression and reductions in government subsidies.
Information from the New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.