CAIRO — Surging out of Cairo's main mosque, several hundred chanting protesters tried to demonstrate Friday against Israeli policies in the occupied territories but were quickly set upon by baton-wielding police. Officials said three policemen were injured and 22 people arrested in the ensuing scuffles.
The demonstration was the largest and most serious of several scattered protests in Egypt over the iron-fisted approach that Israel has used to contain unrest in the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank in recent weeks.
For the government of President Hosni Mubarak, it also highlighted the growing difficulties that Egypt is experiencing in trying to maintain good relations with Israel even as it seeks to re-establish its leadership of the Arab world.
Blamed on 2 Leaders
A statement issued by the Interior Ministry blamed Friday's disturbances on the followers of two prominent Islamic fundamentalists, Sheik Hafez Salama and Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman. The latter is a blind preacher who was tried and acquitted on charges of involvement in a plot to overthrow the government after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat by Islamic extremists in 1981.
Although the demonstration was illegal--and almost certainly was inspired by the fundamentalists for their own political purposes--eyewitness accounts left little doubt that the violence was touched off by police. Swinging batons, the officers waded into the demonstrators as they tried to leave the Al Azhar mosque in downtown Cairo after noon prayers.
Witnesses said the police, notified of plans to hold the protest, moved in to arrest the demonstrators as they emerged from the 1,000-year-old mosque waving copies of the Koran and chanting "Jerusalem will remain Islamic" and "There is no God but Allah."
Several hundred protesters were locked inside the mosque before they had a chance to emerge but were later released when they agreed to disperse peacefully.
Fleeing down the back alleys and labyrinthine side streets of central Cairo, other demonstrators regrouped and tried to rally crowds of New Year's Day strollers to their cause.
More scuffles erupted, and 22 protesters were arrested for trying "to incite the people to stir up rebellion and disturbance," the Interior Ministry said.
Several Injuries Reported
The statement made no mention of casualties, but security sources said three policemen were injured. One unconfirmed report said they were wounded by demonstrators wielding knives.
Although the protest was quickly contained, heavily armed riot police remained deployed in the downtown area throughout the day.
Several small-scale demonstrations against Israel's bloody crackdown on Palestinian unrest in the occupied territories have taken place in Egypt over the last few days without incident, mostly on university campuses. However, the size and public nature of Friday's demonstration, combined with the involvement of fundamentalists agitating for the establishment of an Islamic state, apparently led to the police crackdown.
While never particularly close, relations between Egypt and Israel have been strained in recent weeks by the Gaza violence in which at least 22 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops.
Embarrassment to Egypt
The high death toll has caused shock and outrage in the Arab world. In Egypt, the only Arab country to have diplomatic relations with Israel, it also caused considerable embarrassment because the riots came only weeks after most Arab states re-established relations that were severed when Sadat made peace with Israel.
One consequence of Egypt's re-entry into the Arab fold is that it is "under more pressure now to take a stronger stand against Israeli actions that are seen as being anti-Arab," a Western diplomat said.
Egypt has already protested Israel's handling of the West Bank and Gaza unrest as "brutal and oppressive" and expressed fears that it could set back Middle East peace prospects.
Despite this, observers said, the Mubarak government clearly does not want a major crisis in its relations with Israel and is hoping that the Israelis will not do anything to increase the pressure on Egypt to go beyond verbal protests. This concern also may have been behind the swift effort to snuff out Friday's anti-Israeli demonstration, they said.