Egypt under curfew as protests continue


Cairo: Egypt was under curfew Friday night as the government sought to put an end to nearly a week of demonstrations designed to unseat it.

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Thousands of protesters ignored the order, running rampant through the street, clashing with security forces and attacking government buildings. The curfew – initially upon the cities of Cairo, Suez and Alexandria, but later spread across the whole country – was to last until dawn.

Police, who had earlier been trying to control the demonstrations, seemed to fade from the scene as the day went on, though it remained unclear if they were following orders to do so or ceding control the crowds.

Nonetheless, as night fell, reports streamed in that protesters were unopposed in Tahir Square, a central gathering place in the city, the city of Suez and in parts of North Sinai, all scenes of sometimes fatal clashes earlier in the week.

But the situation remained confusing, with army patrols taking the place of police in some areas. Helicopters and tanks were sighted in Cairo and there were reports of gunfire and clashes between police and army officers. The Al-Jazeera broadcaster showed protesters cheering troops as they moved into Cairo.

Most attention hinged on whether President Hosny Mubarak would give an address on national television, as had been promised earlier in the evening.

Across Cairo, scenes of unrest were plenty. Protesters had torched multiple police vehicles and had stormed the foreign and information ministries. The Information Ministry houses state-run television and radio channels.

The headquarters of Mubarak’s NDP party was ablaze and being looted. There was concern that the blaze could spread to Cairo’s nearby Egyptian Museum.

Al-Jazeera reported 870 injured during the course of the day. Interior Ministry officials, citing government workers and doctors, reported that between 230 and 300 injured people had been treated in Cairo’s hospitals. Two more deaths were reported, bringing the week’s toll to at least nine.

Isolated plundering in Suez was reported by the Al Arabiya broadcaster.

Confusion reigned throughout the day, exacerbated by the government’s decision to order all internet service providers to cut internet access. Mobile phone service was also suspended across the country.

Late Friday, European activist groups were trying to set up workarounds that would allow Egyptians to access the internet using dial-in service to foreign providers.

The curfew also interrupted air travel, as passengers were having difficulty getting to or from the airport.

Protests had been planned to start after Friday prayers at mosques across the country. Forewarned, Egyptian forces blocked off access to many mosques and potential demonstration sites.

Caught up in the net was Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who had returned to Cairo Thursday to help organise the opposition. He was placed under house arrest after he was detained in a mosque where he had gone for prayers.

He had previously offered to help form a transitional government should Mubarak step down.

While some saw the move as a blow to the opposition, others were less worried about ElBaradei’s fate, seeing as how, after visiting Egypt last year to gauge his chances at a presidential run, he had only returned after the protests were already several days old.

“If I am a real leader, I would be the first to go to the streets, but he came after three days to join protests and appear on TV to say he is leading the charge,” said an Egyptian professor who preferred to remain anonymous.

Nonetheless, the Austrian government said Friday night that ElBaradei must be released from his house arrest. ElBaradei is a resident of Vienna.

Sajjid al-Badawi, the head of the liberal Wafd party gave a press conference Friday night demanding a transitional government and changes to the Egyptian constitution. But he also rejected any outside interference during the conference.

World governments have weighed in heavily on the ongoing violence, urging peace and calm and calling on the Egyptian government to respect protesters’ freedom of speech.

“As a partner, we strongly believe that the Egyptian government needs to engage immediately with the Egyptian people in implementing needed economic, political and social reforms,” US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for calm from Davos, Switzerland.

“I have been calling on the authorities to see all these situations as an opportunity to engage in addressing the legitimate concerns and wishes of their peoples.”

The protests began Tuesday, a mixture of opposition to Mubarak’s nearly 30 years of rule and his use of Emergency Laws to stifle opposition. But it has grown into broader protests about the economy and food prices.

Many of the protesters have taken their cues from Tunisia, where president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali gave up power Jan 14 after a month of protests against his 23 years in power.

This week’s protests are the worst in Egypt since bread riots in the 1970s.