President Hosni Mubarak imposed a curfew and ordered troops to back up police as they struggled to control crowds who flooded the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities on Friday to demand that he step down.
In unrest never before seen during Mubarak’s 30-year-rule, police and demonstrators fought running street battles. Dozens of people were wounded as security forces fired rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon at the crowds and baton charged them.
The protesters hurled back stones and shouted “Down, Down, Hosni Mubarak.”
Al-Jazeera television said at least one person was killed in a square in central Cairo, although the report could not be confirmed.
Tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets after Friday prayers in by far the biggest of four consecutive days of protests by people fed up with unemployment, poverty, corruption and the lack of freedom under Mubarak.
“This protest is not going to stop. They won’t and can’t trick the people again and give us some lame concessions. Hosni has to go,” protester Mohamed Taha in Hussein said after fleeing a police attack.
“I am 70-years-old, I am going to die, but these people have to fight to live,” he said.
The unprecedented unrest was triggered by the overthrow two weeks ago of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Al Ben Ali in an uprising that has also inspired anti-government protests in Yemen and elsewhere.
The events pose a quandary for the United States, which has professed its wish for democracy to spread across the Middle East. Mubarak, however, has been a close Washington ally for many years and the recipient of huge amounts of military aid.
In response, US President Barack Obama said social and political reforms in Egypt were “absolutely critical”.
Confrontations took place all over central Cairo between groups of demonstrators and police on Friday, witnesses said.
After several hours of mounting chaos, Mubarak, in his capacity as head of the military, announced a curfew in main cities starting from 6pm (4pm GMT) on Friday.
“According to what some provinces witnessed in terms of riots, lawlessness, looting, destruction, attack and burning of public and private property including attacks on banks and hotels, President Hosni Mubarak decreed a curfew as a military ruler,” a state TV announcer said.
He also ordered the army to back up the police in their efforts to keep control of the streets.
Clubs, tear gas and stones
In a day of clashes, snatch squads of plain clothes security men dragged off suspected ringleaders. At the Fatah mosque in central Ramses Square, several thousand people were penned in and teargassed.
Protesters often quickly dispersed and regrouped.
Some held banners saying: “Everyone against one” and chanted “Peaceful peaceful peaceful, no violence.” Others threw shoes at and stamped on posters of Mubarak. As clashes intensified, police waded into the crowds with batons and fired volleys of tear gas.
“Leave, leave, Mubarak, Mubarak, the plane awaits you,” people chanted.
One car was set ablaze and some police cars were surrounded and attacked by protesters, witnesses said.
Prominent activist Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, was briefly penned in by police after he prayed at a mosque in the Giza area but he later took part in a peaceful march with supporters. Arabiya television said later police had “asked” him to stay home but this could not be confirmed.
In Alexandria, protesters overran police lines and torched police trucks, a witness said. In several cities, protesters stormed the offices of the ruling National Democratic Party, witnesses reported.
In some parts of Cairo, protests were peaceful. Dozens of people prayed together on one road. In Giza, on the city outskirts, marchers shook hands with the police who let them pass peacefully.
It is far from a foregone conclusion that the protesters will force Mubarak out. They face two key challenges, said Amon Aran, a Middle East expert at London’s City University.
“One is the Egyptian security apparatus, which over the years has developed a vested interest in the survival of President Mubarak’s regime. This elaborate apparatus has demonstrated over the past few days that it is determined to crush political dissent,” he said.
“Another obstacle derives from the fact that, so far, the protesters do not seem to form a coherent political opposition. The popular outcry is loud and clear, but whether it can translate into a political force is questionable.”
Before Friday’s clashes, at least five people had been killed over the four days, one of them a police officer. Police have arrested several hundred people.
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood opposition group, including at least eight senior officials, were rounded up overnight. The government has accused the Brotherhood of planning to exploit the youth protests while it says it is being made a scapegoat.
Many protesters are young men. Two thirds of Egypt’s 80-million people are below the age of 30 and many have no jobs. About 40% of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day.
Egypt has been under emergency rule throughout Mubarak’s term in office. The government says it is used to combat terrorism. Critics say it is used to stifle any dissent.
Elections were due to be held in September and until now few had doubted that Mubarak would remain in control or bring in a successor in the shape of his 47-year-old son Gamal.
Father and son deny that Gamal is being groomed for the job.
- October 6 1981: Vice-President Hosni Mubarak is thrust into office when Islamists gun down President Anwar Sadat at a military parade. He is approved as new president in a referendum in November and re-elected in October 1987 and October 1993.
- June 26 1995: Gunmen attack Mubarak’s bulletproof limousine as he arrives at an Organisation of African Unity summit in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, but is unhurt and returns home immediately. Mubarak blames a Sudanese man.
- November 17 1997: Egypt’s biggest Islamic militant group, al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (Islamic Group) kill 58 tourists and four Egyptians at an ancient temple near the southern town of Luxor. Six gunmen and three police also die.
- The state crushed groups including al-Gama’a al-Islamiya and Islamic Jihad, which targeted tourists, Christians, ministers in a 1990s campaign for a purist Islamic state, and has kept a tight lid on such groups since.
- October 5 1999: Mubarak is sworn in as president for a fourth term and names Atef Obeid as new prime minister after the government led by Kamal Ganzouri resigns.
- December 22 1999: Egypt agrees to sell its natural gas through what Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s office dubs a “Pipeline of Peace”. After years of negotiations running alongside the strains of Middle East peacemaking, Barak’s office says gas will be piped from El-Arish in Egypt to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and later to Turkey, Syria and Lebanon.
- March 2005: Street protests by the Kefaya (Enough) Movement draw hundreds across Egypt to oppose a fifth term for Mubarak or any attempt to install his son Gamal in his place.
- May 11 2005: Parliament votes to change the Constitution to allow contested presidential elections, dismissing opposition complaints that strict rules would still prevent genuine competition. A referendum later in May overwhelmingly confirms the constitutional change.
- September 27 2005: Mubarak is sworn in for a fifth consecutive term after winning the country’s first contested presidential elections. Rival Ayman Nour is the only member of Parliament to remain seated during the ceremony, apparently to show his refusal to accept the official vote count.
- December 8 2005: The Muslim Brotherhood increase their seats in Parliament after an election marred by violence, but Mubarak’s party retains a big majority. Eight people were killed on the last day of voting on December 7.
- November 19 2006: Mubarak says he will retain his responsibilities for the rest of his life.
- June 4 2009: US President Barack Obama in a speech in Cairo calls for a “new beginning” in ties between Washington and the Islamic world.
- March 26 2010: Former UN nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei makes a first public appearance after his return to Egypt in February. ElBaradei has said he would consider a presidential bid if demands are met, including constitutional changes to limit power.
- March 27 2010: Mubarak returns to Egypt to reassume presidential powers after three weeks recovering from gallbladder surgery in Germany.
- January 25 2011: At least four people are killed at “Day of Wrath” anti-government protests across Egypt as demonstrators voice their anger, complaining of poverty and repression.
- January 27: Security forces shoot dead a Bedouin protester in the north of Egypt’s Sinai region, bringing the death toll to five on the third day of protests.
- ElBaradei returns to Egypt from Austria. Speaking earlier in Vienna, ElBaradei says it is time for Mubarak to step aside.
- January 28: Security forces fire rubber bullets and tear gas as protesters hurl stones at them and shout “Down, Down, Hosni Mubarak!” witnesses say.
- Police blanket Cairo and block social networking communications in an effort to stifle the protests. Internet via Egyptian servers is blocked across the country, closing a key tool for activists.
- Demonstrations are also staged in other major cities including Alexandria, Mansoura, Suez and Aswan and other major urban centres. – Reuters