January 26, 2011


[But organizers using social networking sites urged a second day of street protests, and the government order was quickly violated in the capital and elsewhere.]



CAIRO — The Egyptian authorities outlawed public gatherings and said any protesters would face “immediate” arrest on Wednesday, a day after tens of thousands of people marched in opposition to the nearly 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak.
But organizers using social networking sites urged a second day of street protests, and the government order was quickly violated in the capital and elsewhere.
In front of Cairo’s press and lawyer’s syndicate buildings, more than 100 people shouted slogans, outnumbered by a force of security officers. “You’re protecting thieves,” they chanted. Police officers began striking the protesters with bamboo sticks.
Later in the afternoon, young protesters fought with police officers in downtown neighborhoods in clashes that spilled onto the streets of the working class neighborhood of Boulaq. Residents there joined forces with the protesters, prompting security officers to fire concussion grenades and tear gas.
The Associated Press, quoting witnesses, said that riot police armed with batons attacked about 100 protesters in the central Egyptian city of Asyut, arresting nearly half.
The government’s effort to ban protests showed the extent to which it had been rattled by the scale of Tuesday’s demonstrations, among the largest in decades here and focused on the central Tahrir Square. “No provocative movements or protest gatherings or organizing marches or demonstrations will be allowed,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
Adding to the government’s challenges, the country’s benchmark stock index fell more than 6 percent early Wednesday, according to Reuters.
Nadeem Mansour, a human rights advocate at the Hisham Mubarak Law Center in Cairo, said that the center had received reports that hundreds of protesters had been arrested in Tuesday’s demonstrations. He said people were being detained throughout Tuesday, but the bulk of the arrests took place at overnight.
That first day of protests, fueled in part by the toppling of the authoritarian government in Tunisia, began small but grew, with protesters occupying Tahrir — Liberation — Square. Security forces, normally quick to crack down on public dissent, were slow to suppress the demonstrations, allowing them to swell.
That shifted early Wednesday. Police officers firing rubber bullets and tear-gas grenades succeeded in driving groups of demonstrators from the square as a sit-in grew into a confrontation involving thousands of people.
Plainclothes officers beat several demonstrators and protesters set fire to a police car.
Cairo braced for broader protests Wednesday, but as of midday, Tahrir Square was clogged with normal traffic. Dozens of security officers in armored personnel carriers stood by.
Elsewhere in the city, troop carriers were also stationed in front of government buildings and in working-class neighborhoods.
The Tuesday protests were scattered across the country, occurring in Alexandria, Suez and other cities besides Cairo. There were reports of at least four deaths, including three protesters, and many injuries.
Several times Tuesday afternoon, cellphone networks appeared to be blocked or otherwise unavailable for people calling from Tahrir Square. Many people had trouble getting access to Twitter, the social networking tool that helped spread news of the protests. Twitter confirmed that its site had been blocked in Egypt, Reuters reported.
On Tuesday, photographers in Alexandria caught people tearing up a large portrait of Mr. Mubarak. An Internet video of demonstrations in Mahalla el-Kubra showed the same, while a crowd snapped cellphone photos and cheered. The acts — rare, and bold here — underscored the anger coursing through the protests and the challenge they might pose to the aging and ailing Egyptian leader.
Several observers said the protests represented the largest display of popular dissatisfaction in recent memory, perhaps since 1977, when people across Egypt violently protested the elimination of subsidies for food and other basic goods.
The government quickly placed blame for the protests on Egypt’s largest opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is tolerated but officially banned. In a statement, the Interior Ministry said the protests were the work of “instigators” led by the Muslim Brotherhood. The movement had announced in advance it would not participate, and responded to the government’s accusations by declaring that it had little to do with Tuesday’s turnout.
The reality that emerged from interviews with protesters — many of whom said they were independents — was more complicated and reflected one of the government’s deepest fears: that opposition to Mr. Mubarak’s rule spreads across ideological lines and includes average people angered by corruption and economic hardship as well as secular and Islamist opponents. That broad support could make it harder for the government to co-opt or crush those demanding change.
“The big, grand ideological narratives were not seen today,” said Amr Hamzawy, research director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. “This was not about ‘Islam is the solution’ or anything else.”
Instead, the protests seemed to reflect a spreading unease with Mr. Mubarak on issues from extension of an emergency law that allows arrests without charge, to his presiding over a stagnant bureaucracy that citizens say is incapable of handling even basic responsibilities.
Their size seemed to represent a breakthrough for opposition groups harassed by the government as they struggle to break Mr. Mubarak’s monopoly on political life.
One protester, Ramy Rafat, 25, said he lived in El-Marg, an impoverished neighborhood in north Cairo. Mr. Rafat, who has a master’s degree in petroleum geology and is unemployed, said he learned about the protest on a Facebook page for Khaled Said, 28. Mr. Said’s family says police officers fatally beat him last year.
“There are a lot of things wrong with this country,” Mr. Rafat said. “The president has been here for 30 years. Why?”
Aya Sayed Khalil, 23, brought her sister, her mother and her father to the protest. “I told them the revolution was coming,” she said. Asked about their political affiliation, Ms. Khalil’s mother, Mona, said, “We’re just Egyptians.”
The marchers came from all social classes and included young men recording tense moments on cellphone cameras, and middle-age women carrying flags of the Wafd party, one of Egypt’s opposition groups. A doctor, Wesam Abdulaziz, 29, said she had traveled two hours to join the protest. She had been to one demonstration before, concerning the treatment of Mr. Said.
“I came to change the government,” she said. “I came to change the entire regime.”
Liam Stack and Dawlat Magdy contributed reporting.