After Day of Protests, Egypt Bans New Rallies

A day after tens of thousands of people marched in opposition to the nearly 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian authorities on Wednesday outlawed any new gatherings, saying protesters faced “immediate” arrest.

Egyptian demonstrators protest in central Cairo amidst tear gas fire by Egyptian police to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and calling for reforms.
Mohammed Abed | APF | Getty Images
Egyptian demonstrators protest in central Cairo amidst tear gas fire by Egyptian police to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and calling for reforms.

The government made the announcement as protesters using social networking sites urged a second day of street demonstrations. The ban showed the extent to which the government had been rattled by the scale of the unusually large demonstrations.

“No provocative movements or protest gatherings or organizing marches or demonstrations will be allowed,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

The protests, running into the early hours of Wednesday and seemingly energized by the toppling of the authoritarian government in Tunisia, began small but grew all day on Tuesday, with protesters occupying one of Cairo’s central squares. Security forces, normally quick to crack down on public dissent, were slow to suppress the demonstrations, allowing them to swell.

But early Wednesday morning, police firing rubber bullets and tear gas grenades succeeded in driving groups of demonstrators from the square as a sit-in grew into a confrontation involving thousands of people.

Plainclothes officers beat several demonstrators and protesters set fire to a police car.

Despite the protesters’ call for a second day of demonstrations, Tahrir Square in central Cairo was clogged with normal traffic at midday, watched by dozens of security officers in armored personnel carriers.

Elsewhere in the city, the authorities seemed prepared for fresh protests and troop carriers were stationed in front of government buildings and in working-class neighborhoods.

On Tuesday, protests also flared in Alexandria, Suez and other cities. There were reports of at least four deaths, including three protesters, and many injuries around the country.

On Wednesday, smaller demonstrations were reported in Cairo and elsewhere. At Cairo’s press and lawyer’s syndicate buildings, more than 100 protesters chanted slogans at hundreds of security officers. “You’re protecting thieves,” they said.

According to The Associated Press, riot police with batons attacked about 100 protesters in the southern city of Assyut, arresting nearly half of them.

Nadeem Mansour, a human rights advocate at the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, said the center had received reports that hundreds of protesters had been arrested in Tuesday’s demonstrations, most of them at night when police clashed with demonstrators.

Photographers in Alexandria caught people tearing up a large portrait of Mr. Mubarak. An Internet video of demonstrations in Mahalla el-Kubra showed the same, while a crowd snapped cellphone photos and cheered. The acts — rare, and bold here — underscored the anger coursing through the protests and the challenge they might pose to the aging and ailing Egyptian leader.

Several observers said the protests represented the largest display of popular dissatisfaction in recent memory, perhaps since 1977, when people across Egypt violently protested the elimination of subsidies for food and other basic goods.

It was not clear whether the size and intensity of the demonstrations — which seemed to shock even the protesters — would or could be sustained.

The government quickly placed blame for the protests on Egypt’s largest opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is tolerated but officially banned. In a statement, the Interior Ministry said the protests were the work of “instigators” led by the Muslim Brotherhood, while the movement declared that it had little to do with them.

The reality that emerged from interviews with protesters — many of whom said they were independents — was more complicated and reflected one of the government’s deepest fears: that opposition to Mr. Mubarak’s rule spreads across ideological lines and includes average people angered by corruption and economic hardship as well as secular and Islamist opponents. That broad support could make it harder for the government to co-opt or crush those demanding change.

“I came to change the entire regime.”

“The big, grand ideological narratives were not seen today,” said Amr Hamzawy, research director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. “This was not about ‘Islam is the solution’ or anything else.”

Instead, the protests seemed to reflect a spreading unease with Mr. Mubarak on issues from extension of an emergency law that allows arrests without charge, to his presiding over a stagnant bureaucracy that citizens say is incapable of handling even basic responsibilities.

Their size seemed to represent a breakthrough for opposition groups harassed by the government as they struggle to break Mr. Mubarak’s monopoly on political life.

Scores of demonstrators and more than a dozen soldiers were injured in the Cairo clashes, which lasted hours and included bouts of rock-throwing by both protesters and the police.

There were mixed signals about how the authorities planned to handle the unrest.

Several times Tuesday afternoon, cellphone networks appeared to be blocked or otherwise unavailable for people calling from Tahrir — or Liberation — Square. Many people had trouble getting access to Twitter, the social networking tool that helped spread news of the protests. Twitter confirmed that its site had been blocked in Egypt, Reuters reported.

In the days leading up to the protests, more than 90,000 people signed up on a Facebook page for the “Day of Revolution,” organized by opposition and pro-democracy groups to be held on Police Day, a national holiday. The organizers framed the protest as a stand against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment. The Muslim Brotherhood said it would not officially participate, though some members were among the protesters in Cairo.

But many people said they did not belong to any particular group and were attending their first demonstration. They included Ramy Rafat, 25, who said he lived in El-Marg, an impoverished neighborhood in north Cairo. Mr. Rafat, who has a master’s degree in petroleum geology and is unemployed, said he learned about the protest on a Facebook page for Khaled Said, 28. Mr. Said’s family says police officers fatally beat him last year.

“There are a lot of things wrong with this country,” Mr. Rafat said. “The president has been here for 30 years. Why?”

Aya Sayed Khalil, 23, brought her sister, her mother and her father to the protest. “I told them the revolution was coming,” she said. Asked about their political affiliation, Ms. Khalil’s mother, Mona, said, “We’re just Egyptians.”

The marchers came from all social classes and included young men recording tense moments on cellphone cameras, and middle-age women carrying flags of the Wafd party, one of Egypt’s opposition groups. A doctor, Wesam Abdulaziz, 29, said she had traveled two hours to join the protest. She had been to one demonstration before, concerning the treatment of Mr. Said.

“I came to change the government,” she said. “I came to change the entire regime.”