Tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets on Tuesday demanding an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. The mass demonstrations were inspired by the toppling of the government in Tunisia.
Cairo, the capital, was the scene of violent clashes as thousands of protesters from separate demonstrations, aimed at the 82-year-old leader who will face elections later this year, converged on Tahrir Square, the central plaza.
Demonstrators waved Egyptian and Tunisian flags, hauled down a billboard advertising the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and chanted “depart Mubarak”.
There were protests around the country and two demonstrators were reported to have been killed in Suez, east of Cairo.
The protests over decades of poverty, oppression and police torture had been declared illegal by the authorities and were met with a fierce response. Tear gas and water cannons were fired into the crowd and rocks were thrown by both demonstrators and security forces. “This is the first day of the Egyptian revolution,” said Karim Rizk, at one of the rallies in the capital.
“We have taken back our streets today from the regime and they won’t recover from the blow.”
‘Day of revolt’
Protests also broke out in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, where posters of Mubarak and his son, Gamal, were destroyed. Roads were also blocked in the Sinai peninsula and large rallies were reported across the Nile delta and the Suez Canal region.
The protests were called by a coalition of online activists, who promised January 25 would be a “day of revolt”. Apparently taken by surprise by the size of the crowds, police initially stood back and allowed demonstrators to occupy public squares and march through the streets, unprecedented in a country where political gatherings are outlawed and demonstrations normally shut down quickly.
But as the marches grew, the government moved to isolate them. Access to internet, phone and social media networks was shut down, spreading confusion among protesters and temporarily sealing off the largest Arab country from the rest of the world. Access was later restored, although services remained intermittent.
“This is what freedom feels like. What a great day for Egypt,” said Ahmed Ashraf, a 26-year-old bank analyst attending his first protest.
“It was impossible to rally like this before, but today I knew I had to come out. This is our Tunisia.”
Demonstrators excitedly urged passersby to join them and many obliged. “Egypt is waking up,” shouted a coffee shop owner who spontaneously merged with a throng of protesters in Shubra, in northern Cairo.
Breakaway groups trying to reach the Parliament building fought running battles with armed police, whose cordons were broken several times.
Police fired tear gas canisters and released sound bombs to try to disperse protesters. Many demonstrators were seen with blood running down their faces. The clashes came on a public holiday dedicated to saluting the achievements of the police force.
The day’s events were a litmus test for the strength of a new generation of anti-government activists, who have rejected the moribund landscape of formal politics and begun organising online. Tahrir Square was last occupied during protests against the Iraq war in 2003 but witnesses declared yesterday’s rally to be even bigger.
As night fell the security forces intensified their tear gas bombardment and begun charging protesters on Qasr el-Aini, one of the main roads leading to the square. Sound bombs rang out and demonstrators chanted “terrorists” at the coming police.
“What is happening today is a major warning to the system,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, a political analyst. He said the uprising would continue to gather momentum unless the government swiftly addressed demands for reform.
Focus on brutality
The death of 28-year-old Khaled Said in Alexandria in June last year has proved a potent rallying point for the opposition in Egypt and human rights activists elsewhere. Graphic pictures of his injuries after a fatal beating, allegedly by police, quickly appeared online.
Witnesses said Said, who had earlier posted a video of local officers apparently dividing the spoils from a drugs bust, was assaulted at an internet café near his home.
He was kicked, punched and had his head smashed against a marble staircase in the lobby of a building next door. His body was dragged into a police car and later dumped at the roadside. Security officials at first claimed Said died of asphyxiation after he swallowed a packet of narcotics hidden under his tongue. The United States and the European Union called for a transparent investigation.
The trial of the two police officers charged with brutality is expected to resume next month. — Guardian News & Media 2011