CAIRO — Riot police battled anti-American demonstrators for the third time in a week Saturday as a special American envoy flew to Cairo to try to cool the diplomatic crisis caused by Washington's handling of the Achille Lauro affair.
President Hosni Mubarak, in what some observers here read as a snub, said that he was too busy to see the envoy, Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead, until Monday. U.S. and Egyptian officials said that Whitehead will meet with Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid today while waiting for Mubarak to return from an inspection tour of villages in southern Egypt.
Hours before Whitehead's arrival, while the envoy was in Rome working to patch up the diplomatic rift with Italian officials, hundreds of heavily armed police battled student protesters at Ein Shams University, Cairo's second largest campus and the scene of anti-American demonstrations earlier last week.
Two Buildings Ablaze
Two buildings in a complex belonging to the School of Commerce were set ablaze and badly damaged during the two-hour melee, in which police fired tear gas canisters from truck-mounted cannons at the demonstrators and at the crowds of onlookers.
Interior Ministry officials refused to disclose how many people were injured and arrested, but university officials said that dozens of students were hurt, including several hit in the face by tear-gas canisters. Several protesters were seen being hauled into waiting police vans and taken away.
Columns of flames and clouds of black smoke rose from the upper floor of a three-story building in the Commerce School complex and spread to an adjacent building by the time fire trucks, delayed in Cairo's snarling traffic, arrived about 45 minutes later.
A university official, who asked not to be identified by name, said that the blaze was apparently started by some of the dozens of tear gas canisters fired by police. He said that damage to the two buildings was extensive.
Officials Refuse Comment
U.S. officials refused to comment on the specifics of Whitehead's mission but said they hope it would help put relations "back on track" after they were derailed by Washington's angry reaction to Egyptian moves to free the hijackers of the Achille Lauro after it was learned that an American passenger had been killed.
The U.S. interception of an EgyptAir 737 carrying the hijackers to safety further strained relations with Egypt and provoked an outburst of anti-Americanism on Cairo's volatile campuses.
Defying a government ban on demonstrations, students at Ein Shams and at Cairo University took to the streets during the last week to denounce the United States for the airliner interception and Mubarak for refusing to sever diplomatic relations with Washington as demanded by opposition political parties.
Mubarak, seeking to insulate himself from the criticism, denounced the airliner interception as an act of "air piracy" and, after a conciliatory personal letter from the American President, demanded a public apology from Reagan. However, with no public apology forthcoming and with the demonstrations turning progressively against the government, Mubarak has since muted his remarks in an effort to cool the crisis. The success of his effort, analysts said, will depend on whether public opinion can be brought around.
"The international crisis has peaked. Now is it is a domestic crisis," a Foreign Ministry official said.
Protest Begins Peacefully
Saturday's demonstration at Ein Shams began peacefully when about 500 students gathered inside the campus to shout anti-American slogans while several thousand more students looked on.
"We like Americans, but we hate Reagan because he hates the Arabs," said one demonstrator, who refused to give his name because he said that security agents might be listening. A few moments later, a young man pulled aside the reporter to whom the student had been talking and identified himself as a security officer. He gave the reporter his choice of leaving the campus or being arrested.
Denouncing Reagan as an "animal" and an "idiot," the demonstrators demanded that Egypt break relations with the United States and expel Ambassador Nicholas A. Veliotes, who has been accused in the semi-official Egyptian press of contributing to the crisis through allegedly undiplomatic conduct and profane remarks. The ambassador, after boarding the Achille Lauro and learning that an American passenger had been killed by the hijackers, instructed his embassy to "insist" to Egyptian authorities that they prosecute "those sons of bitches."
Violence erupted Saturday when the protesters tried to slip past heavy police lines confining them to the campus and take their demonstration into the streets. Outnumbering the demonstrators by at least four to one, the police beat them back with volleys of tear gas and gave chase to groups of students wherever they formed.
Smoke Across the Sky
From the vantage point of an overpass outside the main university gates, the campus looked like a battlefield as the white plumes of smoking tear gas canisters arched across the sky, criss-crossing a broad area.
At about 2 p.m., an hour into the melee, the first columns of black smoke billowed from the burning Commerce School building, followed by flames that quickly spread across the roof.
The spectacle attracted thousands of passers-by outside the campus, who formed into crowds that scattered and reformed again and again as the police sought to disperse them too.
To most of the spectators, it seemed like a game. But one middle-aged man in a group of onlookers who had just been tear gassed was angry. Shaking a rolled up newspaper violently at the police, he exclaimed: "Mubarak says there is democracy and freedom in Egypt! Where is the freedom? There is no democracy!"