Police are out in force across Egypt in a bid to stop further anti-government protests that have escalated in the last three days.
There have been reports that a police station in the city of Suez was torched by protesters on Thursday morning. Witnesses say police have fired rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon in Suez, where at least three protesters have been killed since Tuesday.
Yesterday, many people were forced to run the gauntlet when police moved in to break up thousands of demonstrators in Cairo. Authorities have said they will clamp down hard on dissent, fearful the political powder keg could lead to the same explosive conclusion as in regional neighbour Tunisia. Witnesses, including Western journalists, said they were led away by Egypt’s feared plain clothes secret police and beaten.
Much of the anger stems from President Hosni Mubarak’s almost uncontested 30 years in power, with activists demanding he step aside. Many of their grievances, such as soaring food prices, lack of jobs and state repression, mirror those of Tunisian protesters who, earlier this month, succeeded in forcing their long-standing president to flee the country.
Prominent Egyptian political reformer and opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei has said he will return to the country from Vienna on Friday for a large organised protest in Cairo. The Nobel Peace prize recipient and former head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog told Reuters it was time for President Mubarak to retire. “I think he has to declare that he is not going to run again (for president),” he said. “People broke the culture of fear and once you break the culture of fear, there is no going back.”
A presidential election is scheduled for September and many Egyptians believe Mubarak will either remain in control or hand power to his son, Gamal. Mubarak won Egypt’s first ever presidential ballot in 2005 with around 88 percent of the vote.
ElBaradei launched a campaign for change in Egypt last year and some observers believe his presence could inspire demonstrators in a country which has few opposition figureheads. He was quoted on Thursday as saying he would be ready to take power for a transitional period if the people wanted him to. ElBaradei has, though, been criticised by some activists for spending too much time out of Egypt.
In an economic sign of the uncertainty currently hanging over the country, trading on Egypt’s stock exchange was suspended briefly on Thursday to try and allow markets to calm after shares slid by over six percent since the start of the day. But the suspension had little effect and shares continued to plummet after the stock exchange re-opened later in the morning.
The Egyptian government denies security personnel have been heavy-handed, insisting police are showing restraint and are only interfering to prevent acts of vandalism. Officials have also warned youths on the streets to avoid being manipulated by Islamists and other groups with “hidden agendas” who are trying to exploit the protests.
The United States, which sees President Mubarak as a vital ally in the Middle East, has urged Egyptian authorities to implement political reforms that “respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” The European Union’s head of foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, has called on Egypt to “respect” its citizens’ right to freedom of expression.
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