Cairo: Egyptian demonstrators fought security forces into the early hours of Friday in the city of Suez, and the Internet was blocked ahead of the biggest protests yet planned against President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
Emboldened by this month’s revolt that toppled the authoritarian leader of Tunisia, Egyptians have staged mass protests since Tuesday. The biggest demonstrations yet are planned for Friday afternoon after weekly prayers.
“This is a revolution,” one 16-year-old protester said in Suez late on Thursday. “Every day we’re coming back here.”
Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, who returned to Egypt from Vienna on Thursday, has called for Mubarak to resign and said he would join the protests on Friday.
Internet access was shut down across the country shortly after midnight. Mobile phone text messaging services also appeared to be partially disabled, working only sporadically. Activists have relied on the Internet, especially social media services like Twitter and Facebook, to organise.
US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a “tweet” message on Twitter: “We are concerned that communications services, including the Internet, social media, and even this tweet are being blocked in Egypt.”
A page on Facebook social networking site listed more than 30 mosques and churches where protesters were expected gather.
“Egypt’s Muslims and Christians will go out to fight against corruption, unemployment and oppression and absence of freedom.”
In Suez, which has been ground zero for some of the most violent demonstrations, police fired tear gas at protesters who hurled stones and petrol bombs into the early hours of Friday. Fires burned in the street, filling the air with smoke.
The city fire station was ablaze. Waves of protesters charged towards a police station deep into the night. Demonstrators dragged away their wounded comrades into alleys. Security forces shot dead a protester in the north of the Sinai region on Thursday, bringing the death toll to five.
Video images obtained by Reuters showed the man among a small group of protesters some distance from the security forces when he suddenly collapsed with a gunshot wound and was dragged away by other demonstrators.
The video circulated widely on the Internet, galvanising anger. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including at least eight senior officials of the opposition group and its main spokesmen, were rounded up overnight. A security source said authorities had ordered a crackdown on the group.
“WIPED FROM THE GLOBAL MAP”
US-based Internet monitoring firm Renesys said the total shut-down of the Internet it recorded early on Friday was “unprecedented in Internet history”, going far beyond measures taken during Tunisia’s protests or a 2009 uprising in Iran.
“Renesys observed the virtually simultaneous withdrawal of all routes to Egyptian networks in the Internet’s global routing table,” it said. “The Egyptian government’s actions tonight have essentially wiped their country from the global map.”
The United States is Egypt’s close ally and major donor, and has tread carefully over unrest in a country it considers a bulwark of Middle East stability.
In his first comments on the unrest, President Barack Obama avoided signs of abandoning Mubarak but made clear he sympathised with demonstrators.
“...I’ve always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on reform -- political reform, economic reform -- is absolutely critical to the long-term well-being of Egypt,” Obama said in comments broadcast on the YouTube website.
“You can see these pent-up frustrations that are being displayed on the streets.”
ElBaradei and other opposition figures say the government exploits the Islamist opposition to justify authoritarianism. The Muslim Brotherhood has kept a low profile during the protests, although of its supporters were expected to join demonstrations on Friday.
The government has accused it of planning to exploit the youth protests for its “hidden agendas”, while the Brotherhood says it is being used as a scapegoat.
As in many other countries across the Middle East, Egyptians are frustrated over surging prices, unemployment and an authoritarian government that tolerates little dissent.
Many of them are young. Two thirds of Egypt’s 80 million people are below the age of 30, and many of them have no jobs. About 40% of Egyptians live on less than a $2 a day.
The government has urged Egyptians to act with restraint on Friday. Safwat Sherif, secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party, told reporters: “We hope that tomorrow’s Friday prayers and its rituals happen in a quiet way that upholds the value of such rituals ... and that no one jeopardises the safety of citizens or subjects them to something they do not want.”
ElBaradei, 68, a former head of the UN nuclear watchdog who has campaigned for change in his native country since last year, told reporters at Cairo’s airport he would take part in Friday’s protests. He added: “I wish we did not have to go out on the streets to press the regime to act.”