Thousands of Egyptian protesters clash with police

Thousands of Egyptian protesters inspired by the revolt in Tunisia clashed with police in the largest anti-government demonstrations in years, flying banners and decrying political repression, corruption and unemployment under the three-decade rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

Mothers in hijabs and students clad in denim joined protests that flared in Cairo and spread to Alexandria and beyond, chanting "Freedom!" and "Down with Mubarak!" A police officer and two protesters were killed, authorities said.

There were no figures on the number of demonstrators nationwide, but the Interior Ministry said that about 10,000 people marched into Tahrir Square near Cairo's parliament building, where many protesters, some of them bleeding, remained past midnight Tuesday, refusing to disperse.

"This is the first protest in Egypt after what happened in Tunisia. This should put pressure on the regime," said Alaa Ammar as he jostled between rows of riot police. "I didn't think demonstrating would bring change. But after Tunisia, we see that it can. The myth that security forces are stronger than the population is gone."

The spirit of the Tunisian uprising was palpable throughout the day. But it was unclear whether Egypt's opposition could mimic its North African neighbor, where longtime President Zine el Abidine ben Ali was driven from power this month after weeks of protests. Egypt remains one of the region's most entrenched police states, and protest leaders had been careful not to lift expectations.

"This won't be the revolution, it will be a knock on the door to the revolution," Ahmed Maher, head of the April 6th Youth Movement, said before the marches.

The protests were organized by the movement, which in recent years has become adept at spreading dissent and organizing rallies through Internet postings. The demonstration, billed as a "Day of Anger," had been planned before Tunisia exploded to coincide with Police Day, which honors officers killed fighting Egypt's British occupiers in 1952.

Organizers quickly seized on Tunisia's momentum to rally against living conditions, inflation, human rights abuses and the prospect that Mubarak's son Gamal might succeed him. Gamal Mubarak is criticized by many Egyptians as being aloof from their problems, leading some to chant "Gamal, tell your father Egyptians hate you!"

Groups of protesters began marching in early afternoon through downtown Cairo, crossing bridges and outflanking riot police as crowds headed for Tahrir Square. Though more than 80,000 people signed up on Facebook to attend the rallies, there were far fewer in the streets.

The roving protesters in Cairo confronted as many as 20,000 members of the security forces, which initially showed unusual restraint. But as the demonstrations went on, the officers began to swing batons, fire water cannons and clash with protesters.

The capital became a fluid maze of demonstrators swarming through traffic as helmeted police, their boots slapping the pavement, hurried to corral protesters on boulevards lined with amazed bystanders and amid the incessant crackle of walkie-talkies.

Crowds in Tahrir rushed police and attempted to take control of a water cannon truck. The police repelled them, and soon demonstrators began hurling rocks, which officers picked up and threw back. Authorities said one police officer was struck in the head and killed. Two protesters died in the city of Suez, one of tear-gas inhalation, the other hit by a rock, the government said.

Opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Front for Change, complained that the day before the protest their members had been threatened with arrest and "bloody confrontations" with security forces. In a statement released Tuesday night, the Interior Ministry said Egyptians had the right to protest and that authorities were "committed to securing and not confronting these gatherings."

Should the unrest spread, the implications for the Middle East would be enormous. Egypt is at the center of the Arab world, the region's most populous nation and a key player in Middle East affairs. Revolution here has the potential to realign regional policies and recast Cairo's relationship with Washington, which gives Egypt about $1.2 billion a year in mostly military aid.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters in Washington that the Egyptian government "is stable and looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.... We support the fundamental rights of expression and assembly, and we urge that all parties exercise restraint."

The 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak is both reviled and respected. A former air force officer who commands loyalty from the police and military, he has allowed a degree of press freedom and other rights while simultaneously crushing political dissent. But his biggest problem emanates from a disillusioned, angry young generation of Egyptians born after he came to power in 1981.

"Don't just sit there, get up, get up and join us!" protester Sharif Hussein Mekawi shouted at shopkeepers, mechanics and laborers who refused to join the marchers flowing past. "We are different than Tunisia. The Tunisians had only no freedom. We have no freedom, but we have poverty and no food and no jobs. We are a body with many more diseases."

The reluctant men facing Mekawi represent this nation's crucial test between rebellion and status quo. Opposition leaders and protest groups, battling egos and disparate agendas, have so far failed to ignite the passion of a people struggling to make a daily living while carrying deep fear of a regime long criticized for police brutality and torture.

"This protest will not change a thing," said Abdulaziz Salama, a third-year business major at Cairo University. "I believe that despite the negative things about the regime, it's better than any alternative. I think most people feel this way."

The Egyptian opposition has yet to find a galvanizing moment to draw hundreds of thousands into the streets. Last year, the death of 28-year-old blogger Khaled Said, who witnesses and human rights organizations alleged was beaten to death by two undercover officers in Alexandria, sparked widespread demonstrations that soon faded. Labor strikes and protests have flared hundreds of times in recent years but they too have ebbed.

The ruling National Democratic Party is skilled at making concessions and splintering dissent. The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition party, could have flooded the streets Tuesday with protesters. But it didn't take part. Internal divisions over politics and Islam have weakened it, along with crackdowns that have imprisoned hundreds of its members.

Other opposition groups, which have become a bickering sideshow to the regime, are viewed with suspicion by the masses.

"Tunisia has pushed us into a moment of self-criticism," said Abdelhalim Kandil, leader of the Kifaya (Enough) opposition movement. "The jokes going around on cellphones here are about the courage of Tunisians and the weakness of Egyptians. We had to watch their revolution on TV to see how weak we were."

With more than 40% of the nation living on less that $2 a day, many Egyptians couldn't afford to protest.

"The Egyptian is so stressed and worried over how he can support his family that he may want to march, but who will feed his kids if he's arrested?" said Zenab Khalifa, a jeweler. "He's afraid of police beatings and injuries. This is what's in his mind, but we have to make him believe in change."

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Amro Hassan of The Times' Cairo Bureau and Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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