- - Tuesday, January 25, 2011

CAIRO | Thousands of anti-government protesters, some hurling rocks and climbing atop an armored police truck, clashed with riot police Tuesday in the center of Cairo in a Tunisia-inspired demonstration to demand the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30 years in power.

Police responded with blasts from water cannons and set upon crowds with batons and acrid clouds of tear gas to clear demonstrators crying out “Down with Mubarak” and demanding an end to Egypt’s grinding poverty, corruption, unemployment and police abuses.

Tuesday’s demonstration, the largest Egypt has seen in years, began peacefully, with police showing unusual restraint in what appeared to be a calculated strategy by the government to avoid further sullying the image of a security apparatus widely seen as little more than corrupt thugs in uniforms.

As crowds carrying Egyptian and Tunisian flags filled downtown Cairo’s main Tahrir Square, however, security personnel changed tactics, and the protest turned violent. The scenes had particular resonance because Tuesday also was a national holiday honoring the much-feared police.

Demonstrators attacked a water-cannon truck, opening the driver’s door and ordering the man out of the vehicle. Some hurled rocks and dragged metal barricades. Officers beat back protesters with batons as they tried to break cordons to join the main group of demonstrators downtown.

A demonstrator confronts riot police in Cairo on Tuesday during a Tunisia-inspired demonstration to demand the end of President Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30 years in power. Demonstrators called for and end to poverty, corruption and police abuses. (Associated Press)
A demonstrator confronts riot police in Cairo on Tuesday during a Tunisia-inspired ... more >

Meanwhile, Mr. Mubarak’s son and presumptive heir is busy remolding his image into that of a populist who can deliver prosperity for the struggling population in Egypt, a key U.S. ally.

Gamal Mubarak, a 46-year-old investment banker, may have made the switch none too soon.

The popular uprising that toppled Tunisia’s authoritarian president this month has exposed the risk Arab regimes run if they don’t work fast to tackle economic ills such as unemployment and rising prices of food and other basic goods.

Egypt, largely following economic policies initiated and pushed by the younger Mr. Mubarak, also has seen high growth rates, but they have yet to trickle down to average Egyptians, who have endured soaring prices.

The economy is the strongest card Gamal Mubarak holds in his bid to succeed his father as leader because he has little popular base and no experience in the military, the source of Egypt’s presidents since the end of the monarchy nearly 60 years ago.

Now all Arab leaders feel increasing pressure to address poverty and social ills head-on.

The ambitious economic reforms Gamal Mubarak has engineered in the 10 years since he launched his political career have fueled strong growth but largely failed to improve the lot of the poor majority of Egyptians, benefiting mostly the small clique of businessmen surrounding him.

At a recent ruling-party conference, he sought to strike a man-of-the-people persona, touting his experiences touring rural areas and speaking to ordinary folks.

“The concerns, problems of Egyptians and the need to raise their standard of living will remain and continue to be our main preoccupation and the pivotal part of our party’s endeavors,” he told party delegates in a nationally televised speech last month.

Gamal Mubarak’s father has ruled Egypt for almost three decades, and uncertainty over the leadership’s future has never been higher. The 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak underwent gallbladder surgery last year, raising questions about his health.

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