Egyptian plainclothes police officers arrest a demonstrator demanding… (Mohammed Abed / AFP / Getty…)
Reporting from Washington and Cairo — The Obama administration urged key Mideast ally Egypt to heed calls for political reform even as security forces tightened their grip on pockets of rebellion in the capital that persisted a day after unprecedented nationwide protests.
The Egyptian Interior Ministry — stunned by the size and passion of the demonstrations against the 3-decade-old government — announced Wednesday that it would not tolerate further protests. Activists in parts of Cairo defied the ministry's threats of "immediate arrest." But the crackdown appeared to keep thousands of demonstrators, angered by unemployment and repression, from venturing back into the streets.
The stiff challenge to the government of President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime American ally, has left the White House in a delicate position, less than two weeks after another longtime autocratic North African ally, President Zine el Abidine ben Ali of Tunisia, was toppled in a popular uprising.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who on Tuesday had urged restraint by "all parties" in Egypt, sought Wednesday to walk a fine line between sympathy for the political opposition and longtime support for Mubarak.
Speaking to reporters at the State Department, Clinton urged the Egyptian government to allow a greater voice for the opposition and to not respond harshly to the street protesters, who have said they have been inspired by the Tunisian revolt.
"We are particularly hopeful that the Egyptian government will take this opportunity to implement political, economic and social reforms that will answer the legitimate interests of the Egyptian people," Clinton said, urging Egyptian authorities not to halt the protests nor to shut down social media networks the protesters are using.
The April 6 youth movement, which hopes to force Mubarak from office, said Wednesday that it was not deterred by a police presence that grew throughout the day. The group, which has organized protests through Facebook, said it was planning a large demonstration after Friday prayers, a provocation that would probably trigger unrest not seen since Egypt's deadly bread riots of 1977.
The day was marked by police firing live ammunition into the air to chase protesters away as they attempted to gather. More than 2,000 demonstrators arrived at the courthouse near the National Museum. Minutes later, police closed in, scattering the dissidents, some of whom threw rocks and set tires on fire as they fled. Protesters were often out of communication with one another, as Twitter and other social networking accounts were blocked.
Authorities said a protester and a policeman were killed when security forces and demonstrators threw stones at one another, according to Arab news reports quoting unnamed security sources. That brought to six the number of people killed in two days of unrest. A witness in the city of Suez, where three protesters have died, said a government building was set on fire Wednesday night.
At least 500 people reportedly have been arrested this week, scores of them before dawn on Wednesday, when police using water cannons and tear gas dispersed a crowd of several thousand hunkered in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
"The harshness and brutality of the police has scared a lot of people," Fathi Abdul Latif, a member of the opposition National Front for Change, said as police swung bamboo canes and hauled off five protesters near the Journalists' Union. "Activists and organizers are regrouping. A revolution needs time. What happened on Tuesday has given us confidence."
Like their counterparts in Tunisia, many Egyptians are angry over three decades of a government that offers little hope to the young, who blame the ruling party for corruption, unemployment and stagnation. It is the effects of these failings in ordinary lives, not ideology or the urgings of political opposition groups, that Egyptians say are driving their resentment against a president many regard as a dictator.
The 82-year-old Mubarak, who may seek reelection this year, has watched his popularity steadily tumble as Egyptians, who rarely ridiculed him in the past, openly yell epithets against him. It is a turn of fate many find hard to comprehend, after years of mass arrests, especially against the officially banned Muslim Brotherhood, and the silencing of many political opponents.
"I've been a political analyst for 30 years, and I didn't expect this," said Diaa Rashwan. "This has opened a new political history in Egypt. It's the first time people are deciding for themselves to protest and demand. Everybody had expected the lower classes to one day revolt, but these protesters are the educated, the middle class and even women."