Egypt increases efforts to suppress protesters

Kareem Fahim and Liam Stack / New York Times News Service /

CAIRO — The Egyptian government intensified efforts to crush a fresh wave of protests Wednesday, banning public gatherings, detaining hundreds of people and sending police officers to scatter protesters who defied the ban and demanded an end to the government of President Hosni Mubarak.

The skirmishes started early in the afternoon, and soon, small fires illuminated large clashes under an overpass. Riot police officers using batons, tear gas and rubber-coated bullets cleared busy avenues; other officers set upon fleeing protesters, beating them with bamboo staves.

Egypt has an extensive and widely feared security apparatus, and it deployed its might in an effort to crush the protests. But it was not clear whether the security forces were succeeding in intimidating protesters or rather inciting them to further defiance.

In contrast to the thousands who marched through Cairo and other cities on Tuesday, the groups of protesters were relatively small. Armored troop carriers rumbled throughout Cairo’s downtown on Wednesday to the thud of tear-gas guns. There were signs that the crackdown was being carefully calibrated, with security forces using their cudgels and sometimes throwing rocks, rather than opening fire.

But again and again, despite the efforts of the police, the protesters in Cairo regrouped and at one point even forced security officers, sitting in the safety of two troop carriers, to retreat.

“This is do or die,” said Mustafa Youssef, 22, a student who marched from skirmish to skirmish with friends, including one nursing a rubber-bullet wound. “The most important thing to do is to keep confronting them.”

Late Wednesday, Reuters reported, protesters in Suez set a government building on fire, according to security officials and witnesses; the fire spread through parts of the provincial administration office but was put out before the flames engulfed the entire building.

Dozens of protesters also threw gasoline bombs at the office of the ruling party in Suez, Reuters reported, but they did not set it on fire. Police officers fired tear gas to push back the demonstrators.

Elsewhere, the authorities had better success smothering the unrest. A significant police presence in Alexandria, where protesters on Tuesday tore down a large portrait of Mubarak, managed to contain demonstrations quickly when they began Wednesday. Several dozen young men tried to gather on the Corniche, a boulevard along the Mediterranean, but the gathering was quickly broken up by more than 100 police officers in riot gear assisted by plainclothes security personnel. The baton-wielding officers arrested several of the protesters as the rest scattered.

The government said about 800 people had been arrested throughout the country since Tuesday morning, but human rights groups said there had been more than 2,000 arrests.