3 killed in Egyptian protests against Mubarak

Wary Jerusalem watches as worst riots in years break out in Egypt; Israel fears northern neighbor en route to becoming ‘Iranian satellite.'

January 25, 2011 20:26
Protesters and riot police face off in Cairo

Protesters and riot police in Cairo. (photo credit: Associated Press)

Israel’s northern and southern neighbors experienced explosive protests on Tuesday, further raising tensions in Lebanon and Egypt – and causing considerable concern in Jerusalem.

Thousands of anti-government protesters, some hurling rocks and climbing atop an armored police truck, clashed with riot police on Tuesday in the center of Cairo, in a Tunisia-inspired demonstration to demand the end of Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30 years in power.

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Three people were killed in confrontations around the country.

After a day of violence, thousands of demonstrators stood their ground in downtown Cairo’s vast Tahrir Square, steps away from parliament and other government buildings.

They promised to camp out overnight, setting the stage for an even more dramatic confrontation.

Police blasted crowds with water cannons and set upon them with batons and tear gas in an attempt to clear demonstrators crying out “Down with Mubarak” – and demanding an end to Egypt’s grinding poverty, corruption, unemployment and police abuses.

Tuesday’s demonstration – the largest Egypt has seen in 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 its security apparatus, widely criticized as corrupt and violent.

With discontent growing over economic woes, and the toppling of Tunisia’s president still resonating in the region, Egypt’s government – which normally responds with swift retribution to any dissent – needed to tread carefully.

But as crowds filled Tahrir Square – waving Egyptian and Tunisian flags and adopting the same protest chants that rang out in the streets of Tunis – security personnel changed tactics and the protest turned violent.

Around 10,000 protesters packed the square, the Interior Ministry said.

The sight of officers beating demonstrators had particular resonance because Tuesday was also a national holiday honoring the much-feared police.

A policeman was hit in the head with a rock during the protest and died later in the hospital, an Interior Ministry official said.

In another demonstration in the city of Suez, two protesters were killed, he said. One of them had respiratory problems and died as a result of tear gas inhalation; the other was killed by a rock.

The new head of IDF Military Intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi, told MKs that there was no significant threat to Mubarak’s regime.

Speaking before the riots in Egypt escalated on Tuesday, Kohavi said opposition movements there were not unified, and the Muslim Brotherhood was not capable of taking power.

Although Kohavi said that Hizbullah did not want to take control of Lebanon, diplomatic officials highlighted the fear that the country was en route to becoming “an Iranian satellite.”

In the course of the day’s bitter protests, thousands of anti- Hizbullah demonstrators converged at a major Lebanese square in a “day of rage” to denounce the appointment of Hizbullah-backed candidate Najib Mikati as prime ministerdesignate.

Protesters attacked a van belonging to Al-Jazeera, accusing the Arabic satellite station of bias in favor of Hizbullah.

Sunnis also demonstrated for a second day across Beirut, and along the main highway linking the capital with the southern port city of Sidon.

A senior military official said several armed men fired in the air in West Beirut, but the army intervened and dispersed them. Soldiers also clashed with demonstrators in the town of Naameh, south of Beirut, where two civilians were wounded, security officials said.

Israel’s officials were carefully monitoring the volatile situations both in Lebanon and Egypt, but chose not to makeany formal statement lest it be seen as meddling in its neighbors’ affairs – something that could further inflame the situation.

The US, by contrast, quickly made its concerns clear regarding Hizbullah’s tightening grip on Lebanon.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the formation of a Hizbullah-dominated government would prompt changes in US political and economic relations with Lebanon.

US officials indicated that cuts or realignment of military aid to Lebanon were likely if Hizbullah emerged in control of key parts of the government. Clinton said the US wanted an independent, sovereign Lebanon and was concerned about “outside forces.”

In Jerusalem, one diplomatic official said, “We are gathering all available information, trying to analyze and make sense of what is going on and where things are headed.”

Another official said the concern that Lebanon was on the fast-track to becoming an Iranian satellite under Hizbullah control “has widespread strategic implications.”

The significance of the unstable situation in the countries immediately to Israel’s south and north was expected to be one of the topics of conversation in discussions held on Tuesday night in Jerusalem between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Quartet envoy Tony Blair.

Kohavi said it was by no means clear that Hizbullah wanted to take over Lebanon. He added that there were assessments that Hizbullah had learned from Hamas’s experience in Gaza, and understood that complete control and responsibility for Lebanon would limit its ability to act.

“The organization wants to impact what is going on in Lebanon, but not control it,” he said.

Kohavi also said that the issuing of indictments by the international tribunal in the Rafik Hariri assassination case was still some “six or seven” weeks away. He added that Syria – which has aggressively intervened in Lebanon – was very actively ensuring that Saad Hariri would not return to the premiership.

Hizbullah-backed Harvard-educated billionaire and former premier Najib Mikati was designated on Tuesday to form Lebanon’s next government – angering Sunnis who protested the rising power of the Shi’ite militant group by burning tires and torching an Al-Jazeera van.

The president appointed Mikati as prime minister-designate after a majority of lawmakers voted for him. Mikati defeated US-backed Saad Hariri, who was prime minister from 2009 – until Hizbullah forced the unity government he led to collapse two weeks ago.

“My hand is extended to all Lebanese, Muslims and Christians, in order to build and not to destroy,” Mikati said after he was chosen, striking a conciliatory tone and calling for another unity government.

The vote caps Hizbullah’s steady rise over the past few decades from a small group fighting Israel to Lebanon’s most powerful military and political force.

The shift in the balance of power drew warnings from the US that its support for Lebanon could be in jeopardy, demonstrating the risks of international isolation if Hizbullah pushes too far.

Hariri’s bloc has insisted it will not join a government led by a Hizbullah pick, which could mean months of political deadlock ahead in Lebanon.

Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah said later on Tuesday that neither Mikati nor the government he will form are going to be controlled by Hizbullah. He urged Mikati to form a national unity government and called on the Western-backed March 14 coalition to be part of it.

“Refusing to participate in this government means that you want to govern alone and that you would do anything for the sake of power,” he said about the Hariri-led coalition.

Because Mikati is a Sunni, protesters accused him of being a traitor to his sect, and betraying Hariri.

After it was clear that Mikati won the support of a majority of lawmakers on Tuesday, Hariri thanked people for their support, but called for restraint.

“I understand your emotions...but this rage should not lead us to what is against our morals, faith and beliefs,” he said.

Hariri’s Future bloc declared a day of peaceful protests on Tuesday – but called it a “day of rage” and played on the sectarian dimension of the conflict.

Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.

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