Egyptian anti-government activists clashed with police for a second day Wednesday in defiance of an official ban on any protests. Beefed-up police forces on the streets quickly moved in and used tear gas and beatings to disperse demonstrations.
Security officials said a total of 860 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 President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and a solution to grinding poverty, rising prices and high unemployment.
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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. Israel Radio reported that 70 protesters were injured. Other smaller clashes carried on late into the night around the capital. In one of them, protesters stoned police, who fired back with tear gas from one of the main bridges over the Nile.
Security officials said one protester and one policeman were killed in a late-night protest in central Cairo, bringing to six the number of people killed in two days of demonstrations. The policeman and the protester were killed by rocks thrown by both sides.
There were signs that the crackdown on protesters was taking a toll on Egypt’s international standing. In Washington, White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs would not say whether Mubarak still has the Obama administration’s support.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday urged the Egyptian government not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. She also said that mass protests have given Egyptian authorities an “important opportunity” to enact broad reforms.
Clinton said that the United States supports the Egyptian people’s rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association. She said the Obama administration was hopeful that the government would act to meet the “legitimate aspirations” of its people.
Israel continued to follow the developments in Egypt on Wednesday, but was careful not to make any official comment.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has met repeatedly since coming to power in March 2009 with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and has said on a number of occasions that he has great respect for Mubarak as a statesman, and as a leader with vast experience and knowledge. Earlier this month he characterized the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement as a “foundation for regional stability.”
There is not a prevalent sense among Egypt watchers in Jerusalem that the disturbances pose a threat to Mubarak’s regime. Rather, the concern is what comes after the 82-year-old Mubarak, and whether his successor – whether his son or someone else – will have the same authority and command the same degree of allegiance.
The sense in Jerusalem is that it would be a mistake to look at the events in Egypt and see an extension of what happened in Tunisia.
“This is not a Tunisian domino effect,” one official said.
Egypt, it was pointed out, is not as closed as Tunisia was under ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali – it has a different political culture, with more organized opposition and more outlets for letting off steam than existed in Tunisia.
Most importantly, the army is considered loyal to the government, whereas the commander of the Tunisian army determined that it would not face down the protestors there.
Labor MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who is close to Mubarak and met on Tuesday with a senior Egyptian official, said Mubarak’s regime was strong and stable. He said there was no Egyptian who was serious enough competition for Mubarak to lead an effort against him.
“I don’t think it is possible [for there to be a revolution in Egypt],” Ben-Eliezer told Army Radio. “I see things calming down soon.
“Israel cannot do anything about what is happening there. All we can do is express our support for Mubarak and hope the riots pass quietly.”
The British Foreign Secretary urged the Egyptian government and demonstrators to seek a peaceful way forward.
Commenting on the events in Egypt, William Hague said Wednesday: “We deeply regret the loss of life in the Egyptian protests. All parties should show restraint and avoid violence.
“It is important that the government listens to the concerns of those demonstrating and respects rights of freedom of assembly and expression. Openness, transparency and political freedom are important tenets of stability. We urge the government and demonstrators to seek a peaceful way forward.”
The Foreign Office has also updated its travel advice to reflect recent developments.
According to Akhbar Al Arab, a USbased Arabic website, Gamal Mubarak, Hosni Mubarak’s son, fled to London on Tuesday night with his wife and daughter from an airport in western Cairo in the wake of the riots. But the reports were not confirmed, and the UK Border Agency said that it does not comment on individual journeys to and from the UK.
In Cairo, activists used social networking sites to call for fresh demonstrations Wednesday. But Facebook, a key tool used to organize protests, appeared to be at least partially blocked in the afternoon. On Tuesday, Twitter and cellphones appeared to be sporadically blocked as well.
The Interior Ministry warned Wednesday that police would not tolerate any gatherings.
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.
Earlier, dozens gathered outside the Journalists’ Union in downtown Cairo and renewed the chants heard against Mubarak throughout Tuesday’s much larger protests.
“Mubarak is leaving, leaving. O Egyptian people, be brave and join us,” they chanted. As police charged the crowd, beating them with sticks, they chanted “peaceful, peaceful.”
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 on Tuesday.
In the southern city of Assiut, eyewitnesses said riot police set upon some 100 activists staging an antigovernment 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.”
Many protesters say they have been inspired by the uprising in Tunisia – even invoking some of the identical slogans heard in the other north African nation.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.