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Analyst: Egypt uprising result of 'Tunisia effect'

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Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011
 

Unprecedented protests across Egypt against the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday reflect the kind of public outrage that brought down Tunisia's dictator, an analyst says.

Thousands of Egyptians took to the country's streets, turning Police Day -- a national holiday -- into what organizers called a "day of rage."

By midnight, two protesters and one police officer were confirmed dead ,and police were firing tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the 10,000 demonstrators in Liberation Square in downtown Cairo and others in the coastal area.

As night fell, thousands of demonstrators stood their ground for what they vowed would be an all-night sit-in in Tahrir Square, just steps away from parliament and other government buildings -- blocking the streets and setting the stage for more dramatic confrontations.

A large security force moved in about 1 a.m. today, arresting people, chasing others into side streets and filling the square with clouds of tear gas. Protesters collapsed on the ground with breathing problems amid the heavy volleys of tear gas.

The sound of what appeared to be automatic weapons fire could be heard as riot police and plainclothes officers chased several hundred protesters who scrambled onto the main road along the Nile in downtown Cairo. About 20 officers were seen brutally beating one protester with truncheons.

"It got broken up ugly with everything -- shooting, water cannon and (police) running with the sticks," said Gigi Ibrahim, who was among the last protesters to leave the square. "It was a field of tear gas. The square emptied out so fast."

The widespread unrest in the world's most populous Arab nation is a concern for the United States, which relies on Egypt as a critical ally in an unstable region.

"There is no question that this is a Tunisia effect," said Samer Shehata, a Georgetown University Arab politics professor, referring to a Jan. 14 uprising that ousted Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

News of Ben Ali's stunning downfall spread across the Middle East via Internet postings and video, prompting protests in Egypt, Algeria and other Arab countries.

"Millions of people in the Arab world are overjoyed with what happened in Tunisia," Shehata said. "They are thrilled and they have been mesmerized with events ... and they hope that similar things can happen in their own countries."

The Egyptian protesters condemned government corruption and brutality, as well as their country's grinding poverty. Nearly half of Egypt's 80 million people live below the United Nations' official poverty line of $2 a day.

Protesters kept abreast of developments and directed each other around police barricades using Twitter, Facebook and other social-networking websites.

One video posted online showed demonstrators in the town of Mahalla, a scene of past labor protests, ripping down a Mubarak street poster and chanting, "Down, Down Hosni Mubarak!" Others showed police beating or tear-gassing demonstrators.

Shehata called the violence "unprecedented."

"There has not previously been this large of a protest that has been explicably political in nature against the regime," he said.

Many Egyptian activists said they were angry that Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, the two largest Arab television networks, gave too little coverage to their protests.

"(Tunisian dictator) Ben Ali couldn't convince the Arabic news networks to ignore the demonstrations like Mubarak clearly has," one protester posted on the Web under the name Sultan al Qassemi.

U.S. officials urged all sides to avoid violence.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared support for "the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people" and added that "(the United States') assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of (its) people."

The size of the protests was unclear. Interior Ministry officials estimated a crowd of 10,000 at a Cairo demonstration and said protests occurred in five of the country's governorates, with smaller demonstrations in other regions.

Protesters said their numbers were far higher, in the tens of thousands.

Also unclear was whether activists can maintain their protests for the days or weeks needed to force political change.

Hossam Zaki, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman and senior political adviser, said "Egyptians have the right to express themselves" and described the protest as a result of the country's allowing greater freedom of expression in recent years.

The much-feared Interior Ministry accused the officially banned but largely tolerated Muslim Brotherhood of joining in rioting and attacks on police. The Brotherhood, the country's largest political opposition, advocates Islamic rule in Egypt.

Brotherhood spokesman Essam el Erian denied the charges.

Georgetown University's Shehata said the Muslim Brotherhood likely did not join the protests because it is "risk-averse" and unwilling "to challenge the regime for all the marbles."

He said the Brotherhood is looking for "greater room to maneuver in their social programs, but they are not willing to change the whole political system."

The protests "will probably make the government a bit nervous, because it does seem to have been a much more extensive protest than we have seen before," said Michael Collins Dunn, an Egypt expert at the Middle East Institute and editor of the Middle East Journal.

This is a critical political year in Egypt, with presidential elections scheduled in the fall. Mubarak, 81, has not announced whether he will seek re-election or whether his son, Gamal, will seek to succeed him. The younger Mubarak has repeatedly denied being a candidate.

Dunn said that election could serve as a "motive for the demonstrators to keep up the pressure."

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