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In Suez, anger turns into anarchy

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011; 7:51 PM

SUEZ, Egypt - Alaa el Haddad watched from his balcony as the street below turned into a war zone Friday.

For four days, demonstrators across Egypt have raged against President Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30-year regime. But the battles between police and protesters in this usually bustling port city, vital to international trade, have been among the most violent.

The grievances are the same here as in other parts of the country: high unemployment, poverty, corruption and a lack of opportunities except for a select few of a rich elite.

But for the people of Suez, gone too are the days when they were regarded as heroes for staving off an Israeli advance during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

"It's the one province that made Egypt and it is completely oppressed," Haddad said as thousands of demonstrators chanted outside. "All the factories employ people from outside Suez."

But after prayers on Friday, rage boiled over into anarchy outside his home in the Arbaeen district of Suez. By early afternoon, the demonstrators had overwhelmed police, forcing them to flee and torching at least half a dozen armored vehicles. They then stormed the main police station, freeing prisoners who came out with their arms in the air in a sign of victory.

It started out calm. "Peaceful. Peaceful," the demonstrators chanted. But in a moment, things turned bloody and the crowd became increasingly male. By the end of the day, al-Jazeera reported that 11 people had been killed and at least 20 had been badly injured.

Haddad watched from above with his wife, Suheid el Gamal, 50, and their daughter, Passant, 23.

The mobs of young men ran toward rows of police in full riot gear. They pummeled armored vehicles with stones as explosions rocked the buildings around them and tear gas filled the air.

The demonstrators quickly overwhelmed the police and rushed the armored vans, looting them for supplies. They wrestled weapons away from policemen and set their vehicles ablaze. The protesters threw tear gas canisters at the police, who returned fire with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Haddad darted in and out most of the day, trying to avoid shrapnel from the explosions and gunfire below. Passant and her mother urged him to stay inside as white plumes of gas filled their second-floor apartment.

In the hallway outside, a policeman who had been disarmed wept. "In this whole apartment building, not one family will open its door to me?" he cried, collapsing on the floor. Haddad gave him water and quickly came back inside.

The family's early elation turned to fear and sadness. "His friend is on fire inside one of those vans," Haddad said, shaking his head.

"It shouldn't happen like this. Not like this," his wife replied. "I feel like I'm in a dream."

Suddenly, there was pounding at the door as protesters begged for water and onions to absorb the fumes from the tear gas.

Gamal passed supplies to her husband, who slipped them out through the door.

Then more banging. "Please let us in! He's going to die!" someone screamed from outside.

A boy appeared faint near the door. Haddad quickly pulled him inside while blocking others from entering. He fanned the boy with a newspaper as his wife brought water. "Why are you in the street?" Haddad asked. "You should be in school. Why did you go down there?"

Haddad muttered prayers and then told the boy to take deep breaths.

Their apartment was now a refuge on the front lines of a battle being aired on satellite television around the world.

"Suez on al-Jazeera? We weren't even on the map before," Gamal said.

Armored vehicles exploded across the street, where demonstrators were trying to break into the main police station. Thick black smoke masked the blue sky. The boy left the apartment as the anarchy continued.

From the balcony, Haddad watched as the crowd finally broke through the gates of the main police station and torched the lobby. Prisoners flooded out, waving blankets and pajamas in the air. In the streets, they were greeted as heroes.

Two police officers tried to escape on a motorcycle, but they were picked off the bike by and beaten.

A portrait of Mubarak was pulled out of the police station and set ablaze.

"Suez! Suez!" they yelled as others in the crowd went inside the police station and carted off anything they could grab: heaters, refrigerators, computers, wall hangings and desks.

The battle was far from over, as one protester put it earlier in the day: "Now it is a war between the state security and the people."

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