Egyptian Protesters Demand End To Mubarak's Rule
Egyptian police fired tear gas and rubber bullets and beat protesters to clear thousands of people from a central Cairo square Wednesday after the biggest demonstrations in years against President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule.
Two protesters and a police officer were killed in the nationwide demonstrations inspired by Tunisia's uprising, which also demanded a solution to Egypt's grinding poverty and were likely to fuel growing dissent in a presidential election year.
The U.S. State Department said it was monitoring the situation closely and urged Egyptian authorities "to handle these protests peacefully."
"We want to see reform occur, in Egypt and elsewhere, to create greater political, social, and economic opportunity consistent with people's aspirations,"spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a statement. "The United States is a partner of Egypt and the Egyptian people in this process, which we believe should unfold in a peaceful atmosphere."
Protesters gathered in front of the Interior Ministry building on Tuesday to voice their complaints about a multitude of issues, from a lack of government freedoms to long-term poverty.
Tuesday's demonstration, the largest Egypt has seen for years, began peacefully, with police showing unusual restraint in what appeared to be a calculated strategy by the government to avoid further sullying of the image of a security apparatus already facing wide criticism.
As crowds carrying Egyptian and Tunisian flags filled downtown Cairo's main Tahrir square, however, security personnel changed tactics and the protest turned violent. The scenes had particular resonance because Tuesday was also a national holiday honoring the much-feared police.
"The police have been firing tear gas and water cannons to break up the crowds," NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson told Morning Edition on Tuesday. "It's pretty spectacular, in the sense that normally the police would be even more in the business of cordoning off this sort activity, and they've actually been allowing quite a bit of freedom to these demonstrators today."
Demonstrators attacked a water cannon truck, opening the driver's door and ordering the man out of the vehicle. Some hurled rocks and dragged metal barricades. Officers beat back protesters with batons as they tried to break cordons to join the main group of demonstrators downtown.
Protesters emerged stumbling from white clouds of tear gas, coughing and covering their faces with scarves.
Some had blood streaming down their faces. One man fainted. Police dragged some away and beat a journalist, smashing her glasses and seizing her camera.
At one point, the protesters seemed to gain the upper hand, forcing a line of riot police to flee under a barrage of rocks. One demonstrator climbed into a fire engine and drove it away.
"I want my 3-year-old child to grow up with dignity and to find a job just like the president," said 50-year-old Eid Attallah, who works as a driver.
He said he had heard about the planned protests from friends but didn't expect them to be so big.
Many expressed similar surprise.
"We are fed up; this is just enough," said Sayid Abdelfatah, a 38-year-old civil servant who marched with an Egyptian flag. "Tunisia's revolution inspired me but I really never thought we would find such people ready to do the same here."
To the north, in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, thousands of protesters also marched in what was dubbed a "Day of Rage" against Mubarak and lack of political freedoms under his rule.
Like the Tunisian protests, the calls for the rallies in Egypt went out on Facebook and Twitter, with 90,000 saying they would attend. Organizers used the site to give minute-by-minute instructions on where demonstrators should go in an attempt to outmaneuver the police.
By late afternoon, access to Twitter appeared to have been blocked.
In another parallel with Tunisia, the protests drew energy in large part from the death of one person: a young Egyptian man named Khaled Said whose family and witnesses say was beaten to death by a pair of policemen in Alexandria last year.
His case has become a rallying point for Egypt's opposition. Two policemen are on trial in connection with his death.
Tunisia's protests were also sparked by the death of one man, a poor Tunisian vegetable vendor who set himself on fire to protest corruption.
Last week, several people in Egypt — and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa — set themselves on fire in apparent attempts to copy his actions.
Tuesday's protesters voiced their desperation under Egypt's many woes.
"I am not protesting the police," explained Radwa Qabbani, 26. "They are citizens like me. I am protesting corruption, unemployment and high prices. We are just asking for the smallest dreams."
Mothers carrying babies also marched and chanted, "Revolution until Victory!" while young waved signs reading "OUT!" that were inspired by the Tunisian protestations of "DEGAGE!" Men sprayed graffiti reading "Down with Hosni Mubarak."
"We want to see change just like in Tunisia," said Lamia Rayan, 24, one of the protesters.
Nearly half of Egypt's 80 million people live under or just above the poverty line set by the United Nations at $2 a day. Poor quality education, health care and high unemployment have left large numbers of Egyptians deprived of basic needs.
The government has played down the self-immolation attempts in Egypt, with Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif telling reporters on Monday that those who committed the act were driven by "personal issues."
Soon after the Jan. 14 ouster of Tunisia's longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, all eyes focused on Egypt, with observers wondering if the dramatic events in the North African nation could spur unrest against another entrenched Arab regime.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson contributed to this report.
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