CAIRO — Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak struggled to maintain a tenuous hold on power Saturday as the military did not act against tens of thousands of demonstrators who defied a new curfew to call for an end to his nearly 30 years of authoritarian rule.
Jubilant pro-democracy demonstrators and gun-toting soldiers rode together atop tanks into this capital city's main square in an extraordinary show of solidarity.
And after four days of nationwide battles between protesters and police, the tens of thousands of Egyptians who have taken to the streets to demand an end to Mubarak's rule received an unexpected endorsement when the military declined to block their latest rally. Instead, soldiers flashed peace signs and smiled approvingly as demonstrators chanted "Down with Mubarak!" When protesters attempted to mount one of the tanks, the troops invited more aboard, until an entire convoy was covered, leading the crowd to cheer mightily.
It remains to be seen whether Saturday's gestures reflected a military endorsement of the protesters' demand or were simply an attempt by commanders to defuse tensions and buy time for Mubarak to consolidate control and put in a plan of succession.
Mubarak, 82, made appointments that could signal he intends to keep power within the security establishment. Most critically, Mubarak for the first time named a vice president — an apparent step toward setting up a successor other than his son Gamal.
But Mubarak's pick, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, is widely despised among demonstrators, who last week demanded the chance to choose their own president in national elections.
If Mubarak should resign and hand control to Suleiman, it is unlikely that protesters would be appeased. Still, success in driving Mubarak from office would be a monumental achievement for a movement that has spread spontaneously across the nation since Tuesday as Egyptians who have long been accustomed to quietly accepting authority rise up in full-throated reaction.
Until now, Mubarak, who was vice president when he took power after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, has steadfastly refused to name any successor, and the move stirred speculation that he was planning to resign. The new prime minister is Ahmed Shafik, a retired air force general.
Although cell phone service was restored in much of the country, the government appeared to still be blocking or restricting the Internet in an attempt to keep protesters from using social networking sites to communicate.
The Associated Press, meanwhile, said it was told by an airport official that 19 private jets carrying families of wealthy Egyptian businessmen with ties to the Mubarak family left Cairo late Saturday, most of them bound for Dubai.
Late Saturday, it was still unclear whether the military was defying orders to crack down or simply had not been issued them yet. But at least some troops seemed to be sympathizing with the protesters. In the most striking instance, four armored military vehicles moved at the front of a crowd of thousands of protesters in a pitched battle against Egyptian security police officers defending the Interior Ministry.
Protesters there crouched behind armored trucks as they advanced on the police line surrounding the building, then darted forward to hurl rocks or Molotov cocktails and to set abandoned cars on fire.
But the soldiers refused protesters' pleas to open fire on the security police. And the police battered the protesters with tear gas, buckshot and rubber bullets. There were pools of blood in the streets, and protesters carried at least a dozen wounded from the front line of fighting.
Before street fights late Saturday, government officials acknowledged more than 40 deaths around Cairo, plus 27 in Alexandria, 12 in Suez and more fatalities in a handful of other cities. Officials said that as many as 1,000 had been injured. But the final death toll was expected to be much higher. One doctor in a crowd of protesters said his Cairo hospital alone had seen 23 people dead from bullet wounds, and he showed digital photographs of the victims.
The loyalty of the military — the country's most popular and respected institution — will be crucial to determining whether Mubarak can remain as the president of his country, a leader in the Arab world and perhaps America and Israel's closest ally in the region. A change in leadership in Egypt would threaten to upend the established order throughout the Middle East.
The late-afternoon confrontation at the Interior Ministry followed a night of rampant looting around Cairo and then an extraordinary day of peaceful celebration in central squares of the city.
The brigades of security police officers who battled hundreds of thousands of protesters on Friday had withdrawn from most of the city, many pulling back to positions defending core government buildings and Mubarak's presidential palace.
One crowd cheered and chanted, "The army and the people will purify the country." And jubilant crowds marched with their fists in the air, many of them carrying Egyptian flags.
By midday Saturday, young civilians were trying to fill gaps left by the police, directing traffic and in some cases defending their neighborhoods with clubs and other weapons.
Mubarak, however, appeared to push back, imposing a new curfew of 4 p.m. — which protesters defied — and state television warned that the police would shoot violators on sight.
While some Egyptians reveled in what appeared to be their new freedom, there were ominous signs of lawlessness in places where the police had abandoned their posts.
In Alexandria, witnesses were unnerved by the young men on patrol with sticks, clubs and other weapons.
"We're Egyptians. We're real men," said a shopkeeper, brandishing a machete. "We can protect ourselves."
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, said that he observed a group of soldiers completely surrounded by people asking for help in protecting their neighborhoods. The army told them they would have to take care of their own neighborhoods and that there might be reinforcements today.
"Egypt has been a police state for 30 years. For the police to suddenly disappear from the streets is a shocking experience," Bouckaert said. "Even though the police were very repressive, they were also ever-present."
This report contains information from the New York Times and the Washington Post.