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Thousands of Egyptian protesters clash with police

Protesters take to the streets of Cairo to demonstrate against political repression and unemployment under President Hosni Mubarak. It is unclear whether the protests in Egypt will, as in Tunisia, lead to a revolt against the government.

January 26, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Egyptian protesters rush police and battle tear gas in demonstrations against the political repression and unemployment that have defined three decades of rule by President Hosni Mubarak.
Egyptian protesters rush police and battle tear gas in demonstrations… (Mohammed Abed, AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Cairo — Thousands of Egyptian protesters inspired by the revolt in Tunisia clashed with police in the largest anti-government demonstrations in years, flying banners and decrying political repression, corruption and unemployment under the three-decade rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

Mothers in hijabs and students clad in denim joined protests that flared in Cairo and spread to Alexandria and beyond, chanting "Freedom!" and "Down with Mubarak!" A police officer and two protesters were killed, authorities said.

There were no figures on the number of demonstrators nationwide, but the Interior Ministry said that about 10,000 people marched into Tahrir Square near Cairo's parliament building, where many protesters, some of them bleeding, remained past midnight Tuesday, refusing to disperse.

"This is the first protest in Egypt after what happened in Tunisia. This should put pressure on the regime," said Alaa Ammar as he jostled between rows of riot police. "I didn't think demonstrating would bring change. But after Tunisia, we see that it can. The myth that security forces are stronger than the population is gone."

The spirit of the Tunisian uprising was palpable throughout the day. But it was unclear whether Egypt's opposition could mimic its North African neighbor, where longtime President Zine el Abidine ben Ali was driven from power this month after weeks of protests. Egypt remains one of the region's most entrenched police states, and protest leaders had been careful not to lift expectations.

"This won't be the revolution, it will be a knock on the door to the revolution," Ahmed Maher, head of the April 6th Youth Movement, said before the marches.

The protests were organized by the movement, which in recent years has become adept at spreading dissent and organizing rallies through Internet postings. The demonstration, billed as a "Day of Anger," had been planned before Tunisia exploded to coincide with Police Day, which honors officers killed fighting Egypt's British occupiers in 1952.

Organizers quickly seized on Tunisia's momentum to rally against living conditions, inflation, human rights abuses and the prospect that Mubarak's son Gamal might succeed him. Gamal Mubarak is criticized by many Egyptians as being aloof from their problems, leading some to chant "Gamal, tell your father Egyptians hate you!"

Groups of protesters began marching in early afternoon through downtown Cairo, crossing bridges and outflanking riot police as crowds headed for Tahrir Square. Though more than 80,000 people signed up on Facebook to attend the rallies, there were far fewer in the streets.

The roving protesters in Cairo confronted as many as 20,000 members of the security forces, which initially showed unusual restraint. But as the demonstrations went on, the officers began to swing batons, fire water cannons and clash with protesters.

The capital became a fluid maze of demonstrators swarming through traffic as helmeted police, their boots slapping the pavement, hurried to corral protesters on boulevards lined with amazed bystanders and amid the incessant crackle of walkie-talkies.

Crowds in Tahrir rushed police and attempted to take control of a water cannon truck. The police repelled them, and soon demonstrators began hurling rocks, which officers picked up and threw back. Authorities said one police officer was struck in the head and killed. Two protesters died in the city of Suez, one of tear-gas inhalation, the other hit by a rock, the government said.

Opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Front for Change, complained that the day before the protest their members had been threatened with arrest and "bloody confrontations" with security forces. In a statement released Tuesday night, the Interior Ministry said Egyptians had the right to protest and that authorities were "committed to securing and not confronting these gatherings."

Should the unrest spread, the implications for the Middle East would be enormous. Egypt is at the center of the Arab world, the region's most populous nation and a key player in Middle East affairs. Revolution here has the potential to realign regional policies and recast Cairo's relationship with Washington, which gives Egypt about $1.2 billion a year in mostly military aid.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters in Washington that the Egyptian government "is stable and looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.... We support the fundamental rights of expression and assembly, and we urge that all parties exercise restraint."

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