CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian anti-government activists pelted police with firebombs and rocks in a second day of clashes Wednesday in defiance of an official ban on any protests. Beefed up police forces on the streets quickly moved in and used tear gas, beatings and live ammunition fired in the air to disperse any demonstrations.
There were signs that the crackdown on protesters was taking a toll on Egypt’s international standing. In Washington, White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs would not say whether President Hosni Mubarak, the target of demonstrators’ anger and a close U.S. ally, still has the Obama administration’s support. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged calm and said the government should allow peaceful protests, not crack down.
Security officials said a total of 860 protesters have been rounded up nationwide since Tuesday, when tens of thousands turned out for the largest protests in Egypt in years — inspired by the uprising in Tunisia. They demanded Mubarak’s ouster and a solution to grinding poverty, rising prices and high unemployment.
After nightfall Wednesday, more than 2,000 demonstrators were marching on a major downtown boulevard along the Nile when dozens of riot police with helmets and shields charged the crowd. It was a scene repeated throughout the day wherever demonstrators tried to gather.
Though Wednesday’s demonstrations were much smaller, it was significant that protesters were able to sustain the movement over two days given the heavy handedness police have shown and the Interior Ministry’s warning that there would be zero tolerance for any more unrest.
They were the latest in outbursts of political discontent in Egypt that have been growing more frequent and more intense over the past year. Protests have erupted sporadically over police brutality, poverty and food prices, government corruption and mismanagement, and more recently sectarian strife between Christians and Muslims. Parliamentary elections in November were widely decried as fraudulent.
Many in Egypt see these events as signs of the authoritarian president’s vulnerability in an election year. There is speculation that 82-year-old Mr. Mubarak, who has been in power for nearly 30 years and recently experienced serious health problems, may be setting his son Gamal up for hereditary succession. But there is considerable public opposition and, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic memos, it does not meet with the approval of the powerful military. And the regime’s tight hold on power has made it virtually impossible for any serious alternative to Mr. Mubarak to emerge.
European leaders had harsh words for Egypt and expressed concern, saying the events underlined the need for democratization and respect for human and civil rights.
Activists used social networking sites to call for fresh demonstrations Wednesday. But Facebook, a key tool used to organize protests, appeared to be at least partially blocked in the afternoon. On Tuesday, Twitter and cell phones appeared to be sporadically blocked as well.
The Interior Ministry warned Wednesday that police would not tolerate any gatherings, and thousands were out on the streets poised to crack down quickly on any new signs of unrest after clashes on Tuesday that killed three demonstrators and one police officer.
Early Wednesday, thousands of policemen in riot gear and backed by armored vehicles took up posts in Cairo on bridges across the Nile, at major intersections and squares as well as outside key installations such as the state TV building and the headquarters of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party.
Police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of several hundred activists on a main commercial thoroughfare in central Cairo, chasing them through side streets as both sides pelted each other with rocks with hundreds of onlookers watching anxiously. Plainclothes officers shoved some into waiting vans, slapping them in the face. Protesters hurled rocks at police trucks and set tires and trash on fire as they marched.
The day’s demonstrations began when dozens gathered outside the Journalists’ Union in downtown Cairo and renewed the chants heard against Mr. Mubarak throughout Tuesday’s much larger protests. “Mubarak is leaving, leaving. O Egyptian people, be brave and join us,” they chanted. As police charged the crowd, beating them with sticks, they chanted “peaceful, peaceful.”
In the city of Suez east of Cairo, an angry crowd of about 1,000 people gathered outside the city’s morgue demanding to take possession and bury the body of one of three protesters who died in clashes on Tuesday. The crowd later clashed with riot police and the two sides pelted each other with rocks. Protesters also threw firebombs at police, who responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. Later, about 300 protesters laid siege to a police station in the city’s downtown, throwing rocks. Police responded by firing live ammunition in the air.
In the southern city of Assiut, eyewitnesses said riot police set upon some 100 activists staging an anti-government protest Wednesday, beating them up with batons and arresting nearly half of them.