- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2011

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt | Egyptians are preparing for what is expected to be the largest pro-democracy demonstration the country has ever seen on Friday, but the 10-day-old popular uprising is taking its toll on protesters and civilians reeling from a week of chaos and violence.

Activists seeking the immediate ouster of President Hosni Mubarak are aiming to gather 10 million people at the Presidential Palace in Cairo in a massive demonstration they are calling “Departure Friday.” Turnout for the protest was speculative on Thursday, however, as pro-government supporters continued to clash with pro-democracy protesters.

Looting, arson and random beatings have become the norm for what started as nonviolent demonstrations last week. Prices of food, phone calls and other goods and services have skyrocketed, and locals say they are afraid to leave their homes.

Bread costs 10 times what it did last weekend, and taxis and phone calls cost about double. In the markets, long lines form for cooking gas, and many fear that supplies of food, fuel and cash won’t outlast the uprising.

“Nothing will be normal before the protesters go back home,” said Dr. Khaled Fouad, a cardiothoracic surgeon who has joined other civilians who police their neighborhoods at night.

The government has suggested that foreigners are to blame for the unrest, and some foreign journalists have come under attack by angry mobs. One Asian TV reporter described the attacks as a “campaign of intimidation.”

An Al Arabiya reporter was in intensive care after being attacked by pro-Mubarak demonstrators, and a British Broadcasting Corp. crew was detained for several hours.

The decaying situation in Egypt drew responses from around the world on Thursday:

• The New York Times reported Thursday that the Obama administration is discussing with Egyptian officials a proposal for Mr. Mubarak to resign immediately.

Under the proposal, Mr. Mubarak would turn over power to a transitional government headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman with the support of the Egyptian military, the Times said, citing administration officials and Arab diplomats.

Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said President Obama has said now is the time to begin “a peaceful, orderly and meaningful transition, with credible, inclusive negotiations.”

• In a joint statement, the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain condemned the violence and said Egypt’s transition to a new government “must start now.”

• About 1,000 supporters of Hamas demonstrated in front of Egypt’s representative office in Gaza City, calling for Mr. Mubarak to vacate his office.

• Thousands of protesters in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, rallied in an Egypt-like protest, calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for more than 30 years.

In Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, most people are not going to their jobs, and most businesses are closed. But men are still working hard, staying up all night protecting their homes with clubs, bats and blocks of wood.

“In one week, these guys will be exhausted,” said Dr. Fouad, the surgeon, as he took a short break from his neighborhood patrol.

He said he is not for or against the Mubarak regime, but he is against the protests.

He carried a club with a large kitchen knife taped to one end and what looked like a pistol. It was a cigarette lighter, just for show. Dr. Fouad said he would soon purchase a real weapon and joked that just last week, he was a doctor. Now he is a graveyard-shift volunteer street fighter.

Weapons are about the only things that come cheap in Alexandria these days. After the police stations were burned down last week, a black market of stolen guns sprang up in Alexandria, some as cheap as $50. Dr. Fouad said he was planning to buy a rifle and a pistol.

With the army busy manning the protests, he said, he fears no one is left to defend the country.

“I cannot face a foreign army with this,” he said, holding up his club-knife.

As pro-Mubarak supporters swept the nation Wednesday, violence broke out in Cairo, killing six and injuring 800, according to state-run news. In Alexandria, fights broke out and the streets were tense as the new wave of demonstrators suddenly dominated the landscape.

Locals speculated about who the new demonstrators were and why they arrived just before what many activists hope will be the final push that drives Mr. Mubarak from power. Some said the new demonstrators were hired by the government to scare or punish the protesters. Others said they were thugs who were released prisoners and disenchanted policemen.

Marwa, a 29-year-old anti-government activist, said some of them might be businessmen angered by a popular uprising that appears to be devastating the nation’s economy.

Though she is a longtime activist, Marwa said she was afraid to be seen in public yesterday and uncharacteristically wore a veil as she slipped into a car for a brief interview. She said she hoped Alexandrians would rally again for Departure Friday, but she might not attend because her family was worried for her safety. “You don’t know what will happen,” she said.

For foreign journalists in Egypt, Thursday’s demonstrations also were fraught with fear, as many have been beaten, harassed, robbed or arrested since the anti-Mubarak demonstrators swept onto the scene. Cameras pointed at anti-Mubarak protesters immediately draw angry crowds, and several reporters have been injured. Others remain in detention or are missing.

Anti-government protesters say the conflicts on the streets will not get in the way of their mission: to collapse the regime and hold fair elections. Mai al-Mohanzef said she was not against the government until last week, when the police viciously attacked protesters and abandoned their posts.

A new government, one that doesn’t target its own citizens, is needed immediately, she said. Like many activists, she said, she fears today’s showdown could end in tragedy. But, she said, she hopes everyone attends despite the risk. “We have to sacrifice,” she said.

Ms. al-Mohanzef said she thinks that after the events of the past week, the danger of not forcing the removal of Mr. Mubarak is greater than the danger of facing him head-on at the palace.

“He doesn’t care about my security,” she said. “He only cares about his security.”

• Ashish Kumar Sen, in Washington, contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.