Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this story misstated the country's population. It is about 80 million, not 86 million. This version has been corrected.

Protests spread against Mubarak

By Sherine Bayoumi and Leila Fadel
Wednesday, January 26, 2011

CAIRO - In the largest protest in Egypt in years, thousands of anti-government demonstrators called Tuesday for the end of President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule, a cry inspired by the fall of an Arab dictator in Tunisia.

By late Tuesday, about 15,000 protesters were encamped in Cairo's Tahrir Square, saying they had no plans to leave, as supporters brought blankets, food and water to sustain them. Among their demands, posted online and circulated by activists on Twitter, was a call for Mubarak's immediate "abdication of power."

According to the Associated Press, a large security force moved in about 1 a.m. Wednesday, arresting people, beating some, chasing others into side streets and filling the square with clouds of tear gas in an effort to clear it of protesters.

Many of the demonstrators said they were publicly denouncing Mubarak's rule for the first time, inspired by the images of young people in Tunisia effecting change in a region where most Arab countries are led by autocratic rulers and freedom of speech is limited.

"Freedom, O freedom; Mubarak's regime is standing between us and you,'' the demonstrators chanted in downtown Cairo.

The day's protests began downtown and spread to the port city of Alexandria and on to the northeastern city of Suez, where violent clashes with police left two demonstrators dead. A police officer was killed in Cairo, where Arabic satellite news channels broadcast images of police dragging demonstrators through the streets.

For much of the day, Egyptian authorities had demonstrated unusual tolerance in allowing the demonstrations to take place. Organizers said they were seeking to emulate the events in Tunisia, where a popular revolt over unemployment, lack of opportunity and hopelessness in young people ended the rule of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Similar discontent has long pervaded Egypt, a country of about 80 million, where a small, wealthy elite has thrived under the autocratic government headed by Mubarak since 1981, but where nearly half the population lives at or under the U.N. poverty line.

The mood turned sour in Cairo late Tuesday when demonstrators clashed with police outside the Egyptian Museum, throwing rocks and bringing down a police kiosk before backing away with appeals for nonviolence. Later, police attacked the crowd with water cannons and tear gas and, in some cases, beat protesters after demonstrators hurled stones, the Associated Press reported.

Apart from Mubarak's ouster, the demonstrators called for the removal of the government headed by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and the disbanding of Egypt's parliament.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Egypt's government, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, is stable despite the protests. She urged the government and protesters to avoid violence.

Egyptian security authorities have a reputation for heavy-handedness that is a source of simmering anger among Egyptians. It was not clear Tuesday night whether the authorities would permit the demonstrators to remain in Tahrir Square, a large downtown plaza whose name means "liberation" in Arabic.

The protest started off small in downtown Cairo with a few hundred activists who had heard about it through social-networking sites. "Down with Mubarak," they yelled outside the Cassation Courthouse as thousands of riot police stood at the foot of the steps, preventing demonstrators from flowing onto the streets.

In the upper-class district of Mohandeseen, about 100 demonstrators marched through Battal Ahmed Abdel Aziz Street and gathered momentum as passersby joined them. They continued on to Al Tahrir Street, and more joined them, and in Tahrir Square, people came from every direction until they numbered 15,000, outnumbering the riot police.

The demonstrations in Egypt are the latest and largest in the Arab world to follow the fall of Tunisia's government. Other protests have occurred in Algeria, Yemen and Jordan, and they have included repeated cases in which demonstrators set themselves afire, as a protester in Tunisia had done.

In her public appearance in Washington on Tuesday, Clinton acknowledged that Egypt, "like many countries in the region," has been experiencing demonstrations.

"We support the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people, and we urge that all parties exercise restraint and refrain from violence," she said. "But our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.''

Bayoumi is a special correspondent in Cairo. Fadel reported from Beirut.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company