Egypt’s capital was the scene of violent chaos Friday as tens of thousands of anti-government protesters stoned and confronted police, who fired back with rubber bullets and tear gas — a major escalation in the biggest challenge to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
Even a Nobel Peace laureate was soaked by water cannon and forced to take refuge in a mosque.
Groups of thousands of protesters, some chanting “out, out, out,” gathered at at least six venues in Cairo, a city of about 18 million people, and many of them were on the move marching toward major squares and across Nile bridges.
There were smaller protests in Assiut south of Cairo and al-Arish in the Sinai peninsula. Regional television stations were reporting clashes between thousands of demonstrators and police in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria and Minya south of Cairo.
“It’s time for this government to change,” said Amal Ahmed, a 22-year-old protester. “I want a better future for me and my family when I get married.”
Police fired water cannons at one of the country’s leading pro-democracy advocates, Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, and his supporters as they joined the latest wave of protests after noon prayers. They used batons to beat some of ElBaradei’s supporters, who surrounded him to protect him.
A soaking wet ElBaradei was trapped inside a mosque while hundreds of riot police laid siege to it, firing tear gas in the streets around so no one could leave. Tear gas canisters set several cars ablaze outside the mosque and several people fainted and suffered burns.
“We are the ones who will bring change,” said 21-year-old Ahmed Sharif, one of scores who were with ElBardei. “If we do nothing, things will get worse. Change must come,” he screamed through a surgical mask he wore to ward off the tear gas.
Abeer Ahmed, a 31-year-old woman who showed up for ElBaradei with her toddler, said she has a law degree but makes a living cleaning homes.
“Nothing good is left in the country,” she said. “Oppression is growing.”
Friday’s protest were by far the largest and most violent since they began Tuesday. Demonstrators are demanding 82-year-old Mubarak’s ouster and venting their rage at years of government neglect of rampant poverty, unemployment and rising food prices.
The protesters have said they are emboldened by the uprising in Tunisia, another north African Arab nation. Egypt is Washington’s closest Arab ally, but Mubarak may be losing U.S. support. The Obama administration has publicly counseled Mubarak to introduce reforms and refrain from using violence against the protesters.
President Barack Obama said Thursday the anti-government protests filling the streets show the frustrations of Egypt’s citizens.
“It is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express their grievances,” Obama said.
Authorities appeared to have disrupted social networking sites, used as an organizing tool by protesters, throughout the week.
Those disruptions escalated overnight, when Internet and cell phone services, at least in Cairo, appeared to be largely cut off. However, the extreme measures did not prevent tens of thousands from flooding the streets.
In the upscale Mohandiseen neighborhood, at least 10,000 were marching toward the city center chanting “down, down with Mubarak.” The crowd later swelled to about 20,000 as they made their way through residential areas.