CAIRO – Internet service in Egypt was disrupted and the government deployed an elite special operations force in Cairo today, hours before an anticipated new wave of anti-government protests.
The developments were a sign that President Hosni Mubarak’s regime was toughening its crackdown following the biggest protests in years against his nearly 30-year rule.
The counter-terror force, rarely seen on the streets, took up positions in strategic locations, including central Tahrir Square, site of the biggest demonstrations this week.
Facebook and Twitter have helped drive this week’s protests. But by Thursday evening, those sites were disrupted, along with cell phone text messaging and BlackBerry Messenger services. Then the Internet went down.
Earlier, the grass-roots movement got a double boost – the return of Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei and the backing of the biggest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood.
After midnight, security forces arrested at least five Brotherhood leaders and five former members of parliament, according to the group’s lawyer, Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maksoud, and spokesman, Walid Shalaby. They said security forces had also taken a large number of Brotherhood members in a sweep in Cairo and elsewhere.
The real test for the protest movement will be whether Egypt’s fragmented opposition can come together, with today’s rallies expected to be some of the biggest so far.
Social networking sites were abuzz that the gatherings called after Friday prayers could attract huge numbers of protesters demanding the ouster of Mubarak. Millions gather at mosques across the city on Fridays, giving organizers a vast pool of people to tap into.
The 82-year-old Mubarak has not been seen in public or heard from since the protests began Tuesday with tens of thousands marching in Cairo and a string of other cities. While he may still have a chance to ride out this latest challenge, his choices are limited, and all are likely to lead to a loosening of his grip on power.
Violence escalated on Thursday at protests outside the capital. In the flashpoint city of Suez, along the strategic Suez Canal, protesters torched a fire station and looted weapons that they then turned on police. The Interior Ministry said in a statement that more than 90 police officers were injured in those clashes. There were no immediate figures on the number of injured protesters.
In the northern Sinai area of Sheik Zuweid, several hundred Bedouins and police exchanged gunfire, killing a 17-year-old. About 300 protesters surrounded a police station from rooftops of nearby buildings and fired two rocket-propelled grenades at it, damaging the walls.
The United States, Mubarak’s main Western backer, has been publicly counseling reform and an end to the use of violence against protesters, signs the Egyptian leader may no longer be enjoying Washington’s full backing.
In a move likely to help swell the numbers on the streets, the Muslim Brotherhood ended days of inaction to throw its support behind the demonstrations. On its website, the outlawed group said it would join “with all the national Egyptian forces, the Egyptian people, so that this coming Friday will be the general day of rage for the Egyptian nation.”