About 700 people have been arrested throughout Egypt in a crackdown against anti-government protests, security officials say. The arrests came as police clashed with protesters in two cities following Tuesday’s unprecedented protests. One protester and one policeman were killed as police broke up rallies in Cairo, and in Suez a government building was reportedly set on fire.
Public gatherings would no longer be tolerated, the interior ministry said. Anyone taking to the streets against the government would be prosecuted, it added. The BBC’s John Leyne in Cairo says the authorities are responding in familiar fashion, treating a political crisis as a security threat. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif was quoted as saying the government was committed to “freedom of expression by legitimate means”, state news agency Mena reported. Police had acted with restraint, he said.
However, Washington has called on the Egyptian government to lift its ban on demonstrations.Protesters have been inspired by the recent uprising in Tunisia, vowing to stay on the streets until the government falls. They have been using social networking sites to call for fresh demonstrations, but both Facebook and microblogging site Twitter appear to have been periodically blocked inside Egypt.
The government denied it was blocking the sites. Cabinet spokesman Magdy Rady said it respected freedom of expression and “would not resort to such methods”, Reuters news agency reported.
Following a “day of revolt” across Egypt on Tuesday, in which four people died, protesters attempted to stage new demonstrations in Cairo on Wednesday. Police moved to break up demonstrations as they happened. There were scuffles outside the journalists’ union building in central Cairo as hundreds of people gathered to protest. Police beat some with batons and fired tear gas when they tried to break through a cordon.
Protesters burned tyres and threw stones at police. Reuters news agency reported more clashes outside a central court complex in the city. Witnesses said riot police had been charging demonstrators throughout the day wherever in Cairo they happened to gather. Doctors said a policeman and a protester were killed in the clashes, apparently during stone-throwing in a poor neighbourhood of the city.
Meanwhile, in the eastern city of Suez, protesters threw petrol bombs at a government building, setting parts of it on fire, witnesses said. The headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party in the city was also attacked. Earlier, protests were held outside the morgue where the body of a victim of Tuesday’s protests was being kept. At least 55 people were injured in the city.
One of Tuesday’s demonstrators, Mostapha al-Shafey, told the BBC he planned to join protests again on Wednesday. “I want to see an end to this dictatorship. Thirty years of Mubarak is enough. We’ve had enough of the state of emergency. Prices are going up and up,” he said. Demonstrations are illegal in Egypt, which has been ruled by President Mubarak since 1981. The government tolerates little dissent and opposition demonstrations are routinely outlawed.
Social media’s role
Tuesday’s protests were co-ordinated through a Facebook page, where organisers say they are taking a stand against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment. One page called for protesters all over Egypt to gather after prayers on Friday. However, Wednesday brought reports that Facebook was being blocked inside Egypt.
Twitter also played a key part, with supporters inside and outside Egypt using the search term #jan25 to post news on Tuesday, but it was blocked later in the day. BBC technology correspondent Mark Gregory said that while this clampdown had undoubtedly restricted access to information, technically minded protesters had found ways of evading the restrictions.
Tunisia’s President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted from power and fled the country earlier this month, after weeks of protests in which dozens of people were killed.
Egypt has many of the same social and political problems that brought about the unrest in Tunisia – rising food prices, high unemployment and anger at official corruption. However, the population of Egypt has a much lower level of education than Tunisia. Illiteracy is high and internet penetration is low. There are deep frustrations in Egyptian society, our Cairo correspondent says, adding that Egypt is widely seen to have lost power, status and prestige in the three decades of President Mubarak’s rule.