CAIRO – Thousands of Egyptian protesters inspired by the revolt in Tunisia clashed with police and battled tear gas Tuesday in demonstrations against the political repression, corruption and unemployment that have defined three decades of rule by President Hosni Mubarak.
The protests, which spread to Alexandria and other towns, were larger than any Egypt has seen in years. Flying banners and hoarse from yelling anti-government slogans, demonstrators, including mothers in hijabs and students clad in denim, gathered in confidence and surprise as police called for reinforcements and night fell across this ancient city.
But it was unclear if the country’s opposition could mimic Tunisia, where longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was driven from power this month after weeks of protests, and capitalize on sustained public pressure to threaten one of the region’s most entrenched police states. More than 80,000 people signed up on Facebook to attend the rallies but the number in the streets was far fewer.
Groups of protesters began marching in early afternoon through downtown Cairo, crossing bridges and outflanking riot police as crowds headed for Tahrir Square near Parliament. Security forces, which had shown unusual restraint early in the day, swung batons, fired water cannons and clashed with demonstrators amid chants of “Freedom” and “Down with Mubarak.”
Roving protesters confronted as many as 20,000 security forces in Cairo. The city became a fluid maze of demonstrators swarming through traffic as helmeted police – their boots slapping the pavement – hurried to corral them on boulevards lined with amazed bystanders and the incessant crackle of walkie-talkies.
Crowds in Tahrir rushed police and attempted to take control of a water canon truck. Police repelled them and soon demonstrators began hurling rocks, which police picked up and threw back. Authorities said one police officer was struck in the head and killed. Two protesters died in the city of Suez, one of tear gas inhalation, the other hit by a rock, the government said.
There were no figures on the number of demonstrators nationwide, but the Interior Ministry said about 10,000 people marched into Tahrir. Cell phone networks and Twitter service were interrupted as calm settled over the square around midnight, even as thousands of protesters, some of them bleeding, refused to disperse.
“This is the first protest in Egypt after what happened in Tunisia. This should put pressure on the regime,” said Alaa Ammar as he jostled between rows of riot police. “I protested against the U.S. invasion of Iraq but since then I haven’t been in the streets. I didn’t think demonstrating would bring change. But after Tunisia we see that it can. The myth that security forces are stronger than the population is gone.”