Egypt's protests enter 3rd day, ominous for regime

FM sends warnings to Israelis in Cairo; Clinton calls on Mubarak "to implement political reforms"; ElBaradei returns from self-exile.

Protesters and riot police in Cairo (photo credit: Associated Press)
Protesters and riot police in Cairo
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Thousands of Egyptians have vented their rage against President Hosni Mubarak's autocratic government for two straight days of protests that defied a ban on public gatherings. Baton-wielding police responded with tear gas and beatings in a crackdown that has shown no tolerance for dissent, as opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei made his way back to Egypt on Thursday after a self-imposed exile in Austria.
Egypt's largest anti-government protests in years echoed the uprising in Tunisia, threatening to destabilize the leadership of the most important U.S. ally in the Arab world. The ability of the protesters to sustain the momentum for two days in the face of such a heavy-handed police response was a rare feat in this country.
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The Israeli Foreign Ministry, responding to the country's shaky situation, has called on Israelis in Cairo to keep their distance from the demonstrations.
In a public address issued from the ministry's office on Thursday, officials said; "Following the recommendations of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau, we recommend closely following the events unfolding in the country, and to obey the Egyptian authorities on these matters."
One protester and a policeman were killed Wednesday, bringing the two-day death toll to six. Some 860 people have been rounded up, and Facebook, Twitter and cell phones — key to organizing protests — have been disrupted.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on Egypt to adopt broad reforms and not crack down on the anti-government crowds. She urged the Mubarak regime to "take this opportunity to implement political, economic and social reforms that will answer the legitimate interests of the Egyptian people."
Still, there was no indication that Mubarak, who has ruled with an iron fist for nearly 30 years, intends to relinquish power or make democratic or economic concessions, and no sign he would rein in his security forces.
ElBaradei is expected to return from Vienna to Egypt on Thursday following the protests, laying out his manifesto for change in Newsweek.
"I am going back to Cairo, and back onto the streets because, really, there is no choice," ElBaradei wrote. "So far, the regime does not seem to have gotten that message."
"I have hoped to find a way toward change through peaceful means," he added. "In a country like Egypt, it's not easy to get people to put down their names and government ID numbers on a document calling for fundamental democratic reforms, yet a million people have done just that."
"The regime, like the monkey that sees nothing and hears nothing, simply ignored us," ElBaradei explained.
Defiant demonstrations continued late into the night Wednesday. In Cairo, dozens of riot police with helmets and shields charged more than 2,000 marchers on a downtown boulevard along the Nile. Smaller clashes broke out across the capital. In one, protesters stoned police, who responded with a volley of tear gas from a bridge over the Nile.
Thousands of policemen in riot gear and backed by armored vehicles also took up posts in Cairo, on bridges across the Nile, at major intersections and squares, as well as outside key installations, including 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 thoroughfare, chasing them through side streets as both sides pelted each other with rocks while hundreds of onlookers watched. Plainclothes officers shoved some into waiting vans, slapping them in the face.
A policeman and a demonstrator were killed Wednesday when a car ran them over during a protest in a poor central Cairo neighborhood, security officials said. Earlier, three demonstrators died in clashes in the city of Suez and one policemen was killed in Cairo violence.
In Suez, east of Cairo, a peaceful gathering turned violent at sunset when protesters threw rocks at a morgue where they were waiting for the body of a man killed a day earlier. Police broke up the crowd with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition fired into the air.
Protesters also firebombed the ruling party headquarters and a police station, damaging both buildings as burning trash littered the streets.
A persistent rumor that Mubarak's family has fled the country was denied Wednesday as "baseless" by a senior ruling party official. However, the fact that such a rumor found legs speaks to the widely held perception that Mubarak could follow the example of Tunisia's longtime authoritarian ruler, who fled the country with his family in the face of that country's popular uprising this month.