CAIRO // The Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak imposed a nationwide curfew and ordered troops on to the streets to reinforce riot police as his government struggled last night to control protests that engulfed the capital and other major cities.
As darkness fell over Cairo city centre, demonstrators demanding that Mr Mubarak step down after three decades in power were defying the curfew, and the government’s massive show of force and its cutting of internet and mobile phone access.
Flames engulfed the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party, the foreign ministry was overrun and the crack of gunfire echoed around highway overpasses running along the River Nile, where demonstrators and security forces were engaged in running street battles.
The troops on the streets were not opposed everywhere; soldiers riding atop armoured personnel carriers were cheered in at least one Cairo neighbourhood.
In Alexandria, demonstrators set fire to the governorate building and overwhelmed police in several locations, taking over riot-control vehicles and setting them on fire.
In the port city of Suez, a police station was stormed, weapons were seized and armoured vehicles were set alight.
At least one demonstrator was killed in Suez, and in the capital 870 people were wounded.
In this capital of 17.2 million people, tens of thousands took to the streets after Friday prayers in protests never before seen during Mr Mubarak’s rule.
At a large mosque in the wealthy neighbourhood of Mohandisseen, demonstrators leapt to their feet with signs and banners minutes after prayers were over.
Inspired by a sermon endorsing their right to assemble peacefully, they marched several kilometres to the banks of the Nile, where phalanxes of black-clad riot police blocked their attempts to reach Tahrir Square and the state TV building, a goal listed in an e-mail distributed by protest organisers a day earlier.
Within minutes, the crack of rifle fire could be heard above the thud of tear-gas canister launchers as the police fought back against the surging crowd and plainclothes security men dragged off suspected ringleaders.
After days of protest, demonstrators said they were learning how to counter the clouds of tear gas. Many wore swimming goggles and face masks doused in vinegar, which they said helped to reduce the sting of the gas. Those who came in direct contact with the gas washed their faces with Coke – a trick to reduce the burning sensation they said they had learnt by e-mail from Tunisians.
By late afternoon, police had pushed the demonstrators off the May 15 Bridge, but they would not relent, launching surge after surge while chanting for Mr Mubarak to leave office and singing choruses of Egypt’s national anthem.
Mahmoud Abdelaziz, a 27-year-old software developer, said he had been shot by a rubber bullet as he led a charging crowd. The wound to his shin, now wrapped in a large bloody bandage, was “worth it”, Mr Abdelaziz said through gritted teeth.
“I made a good salary but I still feel terrible about what is happening in this country. It’s not just an economic revolution. It’s about freedom, too,” he said.
After several hours of mounting bedlam, Mr Mubarak, in his capacity as head of the military, announced a curfew starting from 6pm local time on Friday.“According to what some provinces witnessed in terms of riots, lawlessness, looting, destruction, attack and burning of public and private property including attacks on banks and hotels, President Hosni Mubarak decreed a curfew as a military ruler,” a state TV announcer said.
As the unprecedented protests raged into a fourth day, there were no signs that the protesters were coalescing around any group of leaders, let alone a single one. Many protesters are young men. Two thirds of Egypt’s 80 million people are below the age of 30 and many have no jobs, while about 40 percent of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day.
Mohamed ElBaradei returned to Cairo late on Thursday amid some expectation that he might emerge as a focal point of the opposition. The Nobel Peace Laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency was briefly penned in by police after he prayed at a mosque in the Giza area but he later took part in a peaceful march with supporters. Later he was reported to be under house arrest.
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood opposition group, including at least eight senior officials, were rounded up overnight on Thursday/Friday. The government has accused the Brotherhood of planning to exploit the youth protests. It says that it is being made a scapegoat.
The events continued to pose a quandary for the United States, which has encouraged democracy in the Middle East but at the same values its relationship with Mr Mubarak. It gives his government at least $3 billion a year in military aid.
A day after the US president Barack Obama said social and political reforms in Egypt were “absolutely critical”, his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, urged the Egyptian government last night “do everything in its power” to hold back the security forces who are battling protesters.
In London, the British foreign secretary William Hague said that protesters taking to the streets in Egypt had “legitimate grievances” and urged all sides to refrain from violence.
Egypt has been under emergency rule throughout Mr Mubarak’s term in office. The government says it is used to combat terrorism. Critics say it is used to stifle any dissent.
Elections were due to be held in September and until now few had doubted that Mr Mubarak would remain in control or bring in a successor in the shape of his 47-year-old son Gamal.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Reuters