CAIRO -- Egypt's embattled President Hosni Mubarak fired his Cabinet early today and promised reforms in his first response to protesters who have mounted the biggest challenge ever to his 30-year rule.
But many protesters were outraged by Mubarak's nationally televised address, in which he also defended the crackdown by police on tens of thousands of demonstrators that drew harsh criticism from the Obama administration Friday, and even a threat to reduce a $1.5 billion program of foreign aid if Egypt escalated the use of force.
"We want more democracy, more efforts to combat unemployment and poverty and combat corruption," a somber-looking Mubarak said, calling the protests "part of a bigger plot to shake the stability and destroy the legitimacy" of the political system.
"I will not shy away from taking any decision that maintains the security of every Egyptian," he vowed.
Many protesters were infuriated.
"We want Mubarak to go and instead he is digging in further," protester Kamal Mohammad said. "He thinks it is calming down the situation, but he is just angering people more."
Mubarak's decision to dismiss Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and the rest of the Cabinet would be interpreted as a serious attempt at bringing change under normal circumstances. But on a day when tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand Mubarak's ouster, it fell far short of expectations.
As a result, options appeared to be dwindling for Mubarak, 82, a 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.
He addressed the nation minutes after the end of a day of protesters running rampant on the streets of Cairo, battling police with stones and firebombs, burning down the ruling party headquarters and defying a night curfew enforced by a military deployment.
The government's attempts to suppress demonstrations appeared to have eroded support from the United States, which is suddenly forced to choose between its most important Arab ally and a democratic uprising demanding his ouster.
The protesters appeared emboldened by their success in bringing tens of thousands to the streets in defiance of a ban, a large police force, countless canisters of tear gas and even a nighttime curfew enforced by the first military deployment of the crisis.
Friday's unrest began when tens of thousands poured into the streets after noon prayers, stoning and confronting police, who fired back with rubber bullets and tear gas.
Demonstrators wielding rocks, glass and sticks chased hundreds of riot police away from the main square in downtown Cairo, and several of the policemen stripped off their uniforms and badges and joined the demonstrators.
In downtown Cairo, people on balconies tossed cans of Pepsi and bottles of water to protesters on the streets below to douse their eyes, as well as onions and lemons to sniff, to cut the sting of the tear gas.
Flames rose in cities across Egypt, and police cars burned and protesters set the ruling party headquarters in Cairo ablaze.
Hundreds of young men tore televisions, fans and stereo equipment from other buildings of the National Democratic Party neighboring the Egyptian Museum, home of King Tutankhamun's treasures and one of the country's most popular tourist attractions.
Young men could be seen forming a human barricade in front of the museum to protect it.