x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Egypt clamps down but protesters come out for second day

As arrests near 1,000, Saudi prince urges Cairo government to listen to protesters amid signs that the crackdown is taking a toll on Egypt's international reputation.

Protesters clash with police yesterday.
Protesters clash with police yesterday.

CAIRO // Anti-government activists pelted police with firebombs and rocks in a second day of clashes yesterday amid signs that the crackdown on protesters was taking a toll on Egypt's international reputation.

The government responded to the growing protests by banning demonstrations, flooding the capital with police and blocking social-network websites to contain public dissent after the biggest political protest the country has seen in years.

In Washington, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, urged calm. "We urge the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media sites," Mrs Clinton said in the most blunt comments to date urging Mr Mubarak to undertake reforms.

"We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people," she said.

After large demonstrations were stifled by security forces across Cairo and the home pages of Facebook and Twitter were blocked, organisers said they would spend today planning larger demonstrations for tomorrow.

The government reaction came after thousands of protesters called for the resignation of the president, Hosni Mubarak, and other top officials. Security officials said 860 protesters had been arrested since Tuesday.

After nightfall yesterday more than 2,000 demonstrators were marching through the city along the Nile when dozens of riot police with helmets and shields charged the crowd. It was a scene that had happened throughout the day wherever demonstrators tried to gather.

The ministry of interior warned in a statement yesterday that protesters would be arrested and prosecuted for participating in any "provocative moves, or protest gatherings, or marches or demonstrations".

Protests have been growing more frequent and more intense over the past year. They have erupted sporadically over police brutality, poverty and food prices, government corruption and mismanagement, and more recently sectarian strife between Christians and Muslims. Elections in November were viewed as fraudulent.

A member of the Saudi royal family, Prince Turki Al Faisal, urged the Egyptian government to listen to the demands of protesters. "In Egypt, I really can't say where this is going to go," Prince Turki said. "Whether they can catch up as leaders to what the population is aiming for is still to be seen."

Previous US support for Mr Mubarak has provoked widespread anger among protesters. Some described the president as a "puppet of Washington".

Shadi Hamid, an Egyptian politics expert and fellow at the Doha-based Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at Brookings, said the protests had revealed that the government had limited options, short of using lethal force, to squelch public dissent.

"The regime was prepared. It wasn't like Tunis where everyone was caught by surprise. Yet even with that the regime was unable to stop the protest," he said.

"By shutting down Facebook and taking these additional steps, that may dampen the organisational potential but it won't eliminate it completely."

Sustained large demonstrations would prompt an agonising choice for police about whether to use live ammunition, he said. The government's order to use lethal force against protesters in Tunisia earlier this month was said by security forces to be a major reason the police ultimately turned against the country's president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

The Tunisian revolt was a major source of inspiration for Tuesday's demonstrations.

"In many democratic transitions that's a key moment," Mr Hamid said of the Tunisian government's order to use lethal force. "It's very difficult to ask police to shoot into a crowd of Egyptians."

Protests erupted yesterday in Suez, a city of almost 500,000 that sits at the southern end of the canal of the same name. There, at least 2,000 protesters gathered at the city morgue after violence on Tuesday left at least two protesters dead.

In Cairo, hundreds of protesters near the city's main railway station were scattered by tear gas, while hundreds more attended a rally near the journalists' syndicate in the city centre. An official in the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's banned Islamist party that is traditionally the country's biggest opposition movement, said members of the group was planning to join even larger protests with other opposition parties after maintaining a low profile on Tuesday.

Mohammed el Biltagy, a Muslim Brotherhood member and former parliamentarian from Shubra al Khaimah, said the group was united with other opposition parties.

"I know the National Society for Change will have a big discussion on what's going to come after the January 25 protest," he said.

The official state news agency, Mena, said 90 demonstrators were arrested yesterday morning while trying to reassemble at Tahrir Square, ad police made 14 arrests in the Nile Delta governate of Manoufiya.

The crackdown brought harsh words from European leaders, who said the protests underline the need for democratisation and respect for human and civil rights.

The European Union said Egyptian authorities should listen to their people, deal with their problems and respect their right to demonstrate. The office of the EU foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, urged "Egyptian authorities to respect and to protect the right of Egyptian citizens to manifest their political aspirations".


With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Reuters