The headquarters of Egypt’s ruling party have been set ablaze after a curfew was announced to try and quell unrest, the likes of which has not been seen in the country for decades.
Tanks have rolled into two principle flashpoint towns, Cairo and in Suez, where earlier clashes reportedly left two protesters dead, one in each city. Shots were heard in the centre of the capital after a 18:00 until 07:00 curfew came into force. In Cairo hospital sources say more than 400 protesters and an unspecified number of policemen were wounded in the violence. There have been unconfirmed reports that soldiers fired shots at protesters who had climbed onto tanks in Suez.
The demonstrators want an end to the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak and street rallies have been growing in amplitude since Tuesday.
Internet, mobile phone networks and even landphone lines were earlier blocked by a regime that is seemingly rattled by recent public unrest in Tunisia that resulted in the toppling of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
A major Egypt-wide protest was organised, with the help of the internet, for immediately after Friday prayers. There were soon reports of police using tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets to counter demonstrators armed with rocks and sticks and chanting phrases such as “down, down with Mubarak” and “the plane is waiting for you.”
Egypt’s largest opposition party, the banned but tolerated Islamist group The Muslim Brotherhood, said it would join the rallies after several of its prominent activists were arrested overnight.
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The demonstrations are also backed by the Nobel Peace prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who has returned to Cairo. One report said ElBaradei had initially been prevented from leaving an area where he took part in a prayer service. Witnesses have since said though
that ElBaradei was allowed to join a peaceful march in the capital and that some demonstrators shook hands with police.
Things escalated as the afternoon wore on and soon there were reports of running battles between security forces and protesters. Towards the end of the afternoon, state television announced that the army had been called in to help police and that a curfew was to be implemented in Cairo, Suez and Alexandria. Soon afterwards black smoke was seen billowing above the Cairo skyline. The curfew has now been extended to all Egyptian cities.
This unrest is the latest political upheaval to hit the Middle East and North Africa, from Egypt to Tunisia and Lebanon to Yemen.
Mubarak is also under pressure from the West to show restraint. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Friday evening:
“We are deeply concerned about the use of violence by Egyptian police and security forces against protesters. We call on the Egyptian government to do everything in its power to restrain security forces. At the same time, protesters should also refrain from violence and express themselves peacefully.”
President Barack Obama yesterday called on Mubarak to make what he calls “absolutely critical” reforms.