- - 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.

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.

The elder Mr. Mubarak has not yet said whether he will run in presidential elections this fall, as many political analysts believe he will. If he does run - but is unable to finish another six-year term - the picture gets murkier.

The son would still be the main potential replacement, but he faces opposition among some in the old guard of the ruling party and the military who question whether he has the political and security clout to run the country.

A New Year’s Day bombing against a Coptic church in Alexandria that killed 21 people could heighten those doubts. The attack sparked riots by Christian protesters and highlighted the potential turbulence in this North African nation of 80 million people.

The elder Mr. Mubarak, a former air force chief, has built a reputation as a strong hand, especially with his ruthless suppression of an Islamic militant insurgency in the 1990s.

His son, in contrast, may look like a lightweight to some party hands. One close ally in the party, Gehad Ouda, disputes that, arguing that any president grows into the position.

“Once you’re strategically positioned in the job of the president, you take charge,” said Mr. Ouda, a senior member of the party’s Policy Committee, headed by Gamal Mubarak. “Being effective on security issues is among the requirements of the job and it’s something you acquire on the job.”

As he leaped up the ranks of the National Democratic Party (NDP) over the years, the younger Mr. Mubarak has avoided confirming or categorically denying he intends to seek the presidency.

The most concrete sign came last year, when thousands of posters went up around Cairo touting him as the best choice for future president — but the campaign, believed linked to party members, fizzled.

His credentials as the guide of Egypt’s economy suffered a setback when food prices soared in 2008 and street protests over low wages, unemployment and a higher cost of living grew in frequency.

Still, the younger Mr. Mubarak touts the fruits of his liberalization reforms: creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs over the past five years, economic growth that reached 7 percent — and even after the global economic turndown has kept a respectable 5 percent to 6 percent pace — as well as steep rises in the salaries for state employees.

Where Gamal Mubarak has made few promises is on political reform to loosen the authoritarian hold of his father’s regime.

He and his senior party ally, steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz, tried to give the ruling party a modern, democratic facade, promoting younger figures and adopting techniques such as internal polling and stylish ad campaigns.

But in parliamentary elections in November and December, the party fell back to tried-and-true methods: rampant ballot-box stuffing and fraud. Its top rival, the Muslim Brotherhood, was purged from parliament along with almost all other opposition parties, creating a near total-NDP legislature.

• From combined dispatches

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