Day of reckoning in Egypt


Anti-government demonstrators watch as tear gas is fired by police in an attempt to disperse them in the port city of Suez. Photo: Mohamed Abd El-Ghany /Reuters
Anti-government demonstrators watch as tear gas is fired by police in an attempt to disperse them in the port city of Suez. Photo: Mohamed Abd El-Ghany /Reuters

Activists geared up for the biggest protests yet today to end Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule, while demonstrators fought security forces into the early morning hours in the eastern city of Suez.
Emboldened by this month’s revolt that toppled the authoritarian leader of Tunisia, Egyptians have staged mass protests since Tuesday in an unprecedented outburst of anger against Mubarak’s strong handed rule.
“This is a revolution,” one 16-year-old protester said in Suez yesterday. “Every day we’re coming back here.”
Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, who returned to Egypt from Vienna yesterday, has called for Mubarak to resign and said he would join the protests today.
Internet access was shut down across the country. Mobile phone text messaging services also appeared to be partially disabled, working only sporadically. The government has denied disrupting communications networks.

A page on Facebook social networking site listed more than 30 mosques and churches where protesters were expected to gather.

“Egypt’s Muslims and Christians will go out to fight against corruption, unemployment and oppression and absence of freedom,” the page said, adding more than 70,000 had signed up online.

In Suez, which has been ground zero for some of the most violent demonstrations, police fired tear gas at protesters who hurled stones and petrol bombs into the early hours. Fires burned in the street, filling the air with smoke.

The city fire station was ablaze. Waves of protesters charged towards a police station deep into the night.

Demonstrators dragged away their wounded comrades into alleys. At another rally near Giza on the outskirts of Cairo, police used tear gas to break up hundreds of protesters late at night. Cairo, normally vibrant on a Thursday night ahead of the weekend, was largely deserted, with shops and restaurants shut.

Security forces shot dead a protester in the north of the Sinai region yesterday, bringing the death toll to five.

Video images obtained by Reuters showed the man among a small group of protesters some distance from the security forces when he suddenly collapsed with a gunshot wound and was dragged away by other demonstrators. The video was circulated widely on the Internet, galvanising anger.

US-based Internet monitoring firm Renesys said Egypt’s web access was totally shut down early today, an event it called “unprecedented in Internet history”.

“Renesys observed the virtually simultaneous withdrawal of all routes to Egyptian networks in the Internet’s global routing table,” it said. “The Egyptian government’s actions tonight have essentially wiped their country from the global map.”

ElBaradei and other opposition figures say the government exploits the Islamist opposition to justify authoritarianism.

The United States is Egypt’s close ally and major donor, and has tread carefully over unrest in a country it considers a bulwark of Middle East stability.

In his first comments on the unrest, President Barack Obama avoided signs of abandoning MR Mubarak but made clear he sympathised with demonstrators.

“I’ve always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on reform  – political reform, economic reform – is absolutely critical to the long-term well-being of Egypt,” Mr Obama said in comments broadcast on YouTube.

“You can see these pent-up frustrations that are being displayed on the streets.”

As in many other countries across the Middle East, Egyptians are frustrated over surging prices, unemployment and an authoritarian government that tolerates little dissent.

Many of them are young. Two thirds of Egypt’s 80 million people are below the age of 30, and many of them have no jobs. About 40 per cent of Egyptians live on less than a $2 a day.

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