CAIRO, Feb 5 (AFP) - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak huddled with his new government for the first time today, and the executive committee of his ruling party quit en masse, on day 12 of mass protests against his regime.
The turmoil in Cairo loomed large over a meeting in Munich, Germany of the Middle East diplomatic Quartet, where US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the Middle East faced a bumpy road on the transition to democracy.
At the same time, Clinton praised the “restraint” shown by the Egyptian security forces during a mass demonstration on Friday, billed as the “day of departure” for Mubarak by protesters.
At least 300 people are believed to have been killed and thousands injured since the protests began on January 25, according to the United Nations high commissioner for human rights.
With big crowds swelling anew in Tahrir Square, epicentre of a stubborn campaign to get Mubarak to stand down immediately, the veteran president met for the first time with the government he had sworn in five days earlier.
Present were his new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, the ministers of petroleum, trade, finance and social solidarity, and the head of the central bank, state news agency MENA reported.
Later in the day, state television said that the executive committee of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which includes his son Gamal Mubarak, had resigned on masse.
“The members of the executive committee resigned from their posts,” it said, adding that Hossam Badrawi — reputed to have good relations with oppostion figures — would take over as NDP secretary general and political bureau chief.
In northern Sinai, a pipeline sending Egyptian gas to Jordan was attacked, officials said, prompting gas supplies to Israel to be halted as well. But it was unclear if the attack had any link to the anti-Mubarak movement.
Gunfire was heard in Tahrir Square in the early hours of today as several thousands protesters spent a chilly night alongside Egyptian army tanks, regarded as protection from riot police or pro-Mubarak militants.
Witnesses said warning shots were fired by soldiers on the nearby October bridge over the River Nile to prevent a clash between pro- and anti-Mubarak groups.
The sound of some tanks outside the Egyptian Museum on the edge of the square starting their engines later in the morning prompted dozens of people to immediately sit down around them to prevent them from moving.
France on Saturday said it suspended sales of arms and riot police equipment to Egypt two weeks ago after the outbreak of the mass protests which have produced deadly clashes with police as well as between rival supporters.
In the latest reported fatality, Egyptian journalist Ahmed Mohammed Mahmud died on Friday of gunshot wounds sustained during clashes between Mubarak supporters and anti-government protesters, the state-owned Al-Ahram daily said.
Despite a return to relative calm, Egypt's stock exchange will not reopen on Monday, as previously announced, MENA reported. Banks, however, were due to resume business on Sunday.
Mubarak, 82, whose three decades as leader of the Arab world's most populous nation had gone unchallenged until now, has said he is “fed up” with his job, but prefers to stay in power until September while calm is restored.
But protesters — inspired by the downfall of Tunisia's long-time president last month — want Mubarak out immediately, while the European Union and the United States are stepping up pressure for a transition to begin.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which is refusing to negotiate with the government, has kept a low profile because it does not want the revolt to be seen as an Islamic revolution, a leader said in an interview to be published on Monday.
“It is an uprising of the Egyptian people,” Rashad al-Bayoumi, a spokesman for the influential group, told the German weekly Der Spiegel.
Arab League chief could emerge as Egypt leader
CAIRO, (AFP) - Charismatic Arab League chief Amr Mussa could emerge as a leading figure in his native Egypt, as masses demanding President Hosni Mubarak's ouster seek a new commander of the Arab world's most populous country.
Mussa, whose second term as head of the 22-member league ends in two months, said on Friday he might run for the presidency.