9:55am

Wed January 26, 2011
Africa

Egypt Says It Will Smash Further Political Protests

Egyptian anti-government activists pelted police with firebombs and rocks in a second day of clashes Wednesday in defiance of an official ban on any protests. Beefed up police forces on the streets quickly moved in and used tear gas, beatings and live ammunition fired in the air to disperse any demonstrations.

Security officials said more than 800 protesters have been rounded up nationwide since Tuesday, when tens of thousands turned out for the largest protests in Egypt in years — inspired by the uprising in Tunisia. They demanded an end to President Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30-year rule and a solution to grinding poverty, rising prices and high unemployment.

After nightfall Wednesday, more than 2,000 demonstrators were marching on a major downtown boulevard along the Nile when dozens of riot police with helmets and shields charged the crowd. It was a scene repeated throughout the day wherever demonstrators tried to gather.

Though Wednesday's demonstrations were much smaller, it was significant that protesters were able to sustain the movement over two days given the heavy-handedness police have shown and government intolerance for any more unrest.

The Interior Ministry warned Wednesday that police would not tolerate any gatherings, and thousands were out on the streets poised to crack down quickly on any new signs of unrest after clashes Tuesday that killed three demonstrators and one police officer.

Early Wednesday, thousands of policemen in riot gear and backed by armored vehicles took up posts in Cairo on bridges across the Nile, at major intersections and squares, as well as outside key installations such as the state TV building and the headquarters of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party.

Police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of several hundred activists on a main commercial thoroughfare in central Cairo, chasing them through side streets as both sides pelted each other with rocks, with hundreds of onlookers watching anxiously. Officers also ordered those who lingered even for a moment in Cairo's Tahrir Square to leave.

The square was the scene of the largest, occasionally bloody protests Tuesday. Thousands of people jammed the area waving banners and shouting slogans as they called for Mubarak's ouster.

Some 250 people were wounded — including 85 policemen — when riot police used tear gas and batons to disperse protesters shortly after midnight.

Activists used social networking sites to call for fresh demonstrations Wednesday. But authorities had shut down Twitter feeds Tuesday night, and Facebook appeared to be at least partially blocked Wednesday afternoon.

"All of Egypt must move, at one time," the Facebook group organizing the demonstrations said in a posting Wednesday in which it listed a number of spots in Cairo and around the country where demonstrators should gather.

In the city of Suez east of Cairo, an angry crowd of about 1,000 people gathered outside the city's morgue demanding to take possession and bury the body of one of three protesters who died in clashes Tuesday. The crowd later clashed with riot police, and the two sides pelted each other with rocks. Protesters also threw firebombs at police, who responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. Later, about 300 protesters laid siege to a police station in the city's downtown, throwing rocks. Police responded by firing live ammunition in the air.

In the southern city of Assiut, eyewitnesses said riot police set upon some 100 activists staging an anti-government protest Wednesday, beating them up with batons and arresting nearly half of them.

"Down, down Hosni Mubarak," chanted the crowd. "Oh, people, join us or you will be next."

The demonstrations were Egypt's biggest in years and are likely to fuel dissent in a presidential election year. Mubarak, 82, has yet to say whether he plans to run for another six-year term in office. He is thought to be grooming his son Gamal to succeed him, a prospect that is opposed by many Egyptians.

"Down with Hosni Mubarak, down with the tyrant," chanted the crowds in Cairo on Tuesday. "We don't want you!" One sign carried by protesters on Tuesday said: "Gamal, take your dad and go."

A member of Saudi Arabia's royal family raised questions about Mubarak's future amid the unprecedented protests in Cairo.

"In Egypt, I really can't say where this is going to go," Prince Turki al-Faisal told Reuters news agency in Davos, Switzerland.

Mubarak's future depends on understanding the anger behind the protests, said al-Faisal, a former diplomat and head of Saudi intelligence who often says out loud what Arab officials say behind closed doors.

The European Union said Wednesday that Egyptian authorities should listen to their people, deal with their problems and respect their right to demonstrate. The office of EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton urged Egyptian authorities "to respect and to protect the right of Egyptian citizens to manifest their political aspirations."

The reaction from Washington, D.C., was somewhat less assertive. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that Egypt's government, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, was stable and Egyptians have the right to protest, though she urged all parties to avoid violence.

Nearly half of all Egyptians live under or just above the poverty line, set by the World Bank at $2 a day. The widespread poverty, high unemployment and rising food prices pose a threat to Mubarak's regime at a time when tensions between Muslims and Christians are adding to the nation's woes.

"I support change," said Sami Imam, a 53-year-old retired teacher who took part in Tuesday's protests. "The police cannot kill us because we, to all practical purposes, are already dead," the father of four said as he clutched Egypt's red, white and black flag.

"I have not visited the butcher in six months," he said, referring to Egypt's rising meat prices.

The protests also follow a parliamentary election marred by allegations of widespread fraud that saw Mubarak's party win all but a small number of the chamber's 518 seats.

In recent weeks, Mubarak and his son have repeatedly vowed to ensure that ambitious economic reforms engineered by the younger Mubarak over the past decade filter down to the poor. But that has not happened, and there has been a marked increase in the frequency of street protests over the economy.

In another parallel with Tunisia, the Egyptian protests drew energy from the death of a single young man — Khaled Said, who was beaten to death by two policemen in Alexandria last year, his family and witnesses say. His slaying has become a rallying point for Egypt's opposition.

Tunisia's protests were also sparked by a single death, that of a poor Tunisian vegetable vendor who set himself on fire to protest corruption. That act has been copied by at least six people in Egypt.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported from Cairo and Deborah Amos reported from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.