CAIRO, Egypt — Tens of thousands of protesters continued to flood the streets of Cairo Friday evening, defying calls for a curfew by the country's president, GlobalPost correspondent Jon Jensen reports.
The demonstrators continued their march toward Cairo's Tahrir, or "Liberation," Square amid a cloud of tear gas, clashing, and at times overwhelming, the country's powerful security forces. Several buildings were on fire, including the headquarters for the ruling National Democratic Party.
Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, instituted an overnight curfew, which was announced on state television. But crowds remained on the streets, calling for the president to step down.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on the Egyptian government to exercise restraint in dealing with protests and to respect citizens' human rights.
Clinton also asked the Mubarak government "to allow peaceful protests and reverse the unprecedented steps it has taken to cut off communications," a reference to the goverment's decision to block internet acces int he country.
The demonstrations began, after midday prayers, following an eerie morning during which shops were shuttered and riot police, preparing for the later battle, moved into positions around the capital.
Opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei, meanwhile, was reportedly placed under house arrest Friday after noon prayers. Police fired water cannons at him and used batons to beat some of ElBaradei's supporters, who surrounded him to protect him, The Associated Press reported.
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.
When he returned home, police stationed outside told him he was not allowed to leave again.
The demonstrators took to the streets in cities across Egypt demanding an end to Mubarak's 30-year presidency. GlobalPost correspondent Jon Jenson, reporting from Cairo, said the demonstrations at times turned violent as protesters clashed with police.
Jensen said protesters were "tearing up the sidewalk," tossing chunks of asphalt and anything else they could get their hands on at police who were responding with countless rounds of tear gas. The entire city, Jensen said, was ensconsed in a cloud of tear gas, which, he noted, was manufactured by an American company based in Jamestown, Penn. — a fact not lost on protesters.
The protesters fought back, often picking up smoking cannisters of tear gas and tossing them back into the crowds of riot police. Protesters also attacked three troop carriers, large trucks used to ferry police and soldiers around the city. The demonstrators ripped them to shreds, Jensen said, jumping on top of them and waving flags.
Although the size of the crowd was unprecedented, equally suprising was its make up. Jensen said the protesters were made up of young, old, poor, middle class, women and men.
"It's the first time for me to be on the streets protesting," said Ahmed Yeaya, standing on top of the newly reclaimed Galaa statue, crying tears of joy. "For 30 years we couldn't say no. We won't want blood, we want this to be a peaceful change."
He added that he was amazed to see both rich and poor protesting in the streets.
"We've taken our streets back and we will never go home," said Ahmad Ali, another protester. "We are tasting freedom and we will never go without it again."
At one point, according to Jensen, a police vehicle and fire truck attempted to flank protesters from the rear but were chased away — in reverse at full speed — with rocks and bottles thrown at their windshields.
Al Jazeera reported also demonstations in Suez, a port on the Red Sea east of Cairo, and in the Nile Delta cities of Mansoura and Sharqiya.
Earlier Friday, Jensen — reporting by phone, as internet access in the country has been almost completely blocked — said that riot police had moved into positions throughout Cairo on Friday morning. An elite special operations force took up position in Tahir Square, which saw some of the biggest protests on Jan. 25. But that force has since been overwhelmed by protesters.
Hours before the end of Friday prayers, when the protest was due to begin, up to 20 police trucks stood at the ready in the square, Jensen said.
Several store owners told Jensen that they had been ordered by police to shut down. Security vans armed with tear gas and rubber bullets were roaming the streets; troops with guns and armed with tear gas were also patrolling, Jensen said.
The cut in internet service looks like an attempt to disrupt plans for massive new protests. The protesters have used new media tools to rally those angry with Mubarak's authoritarian regime.
The government began blocking access to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter on Wednesday, disrupting mobile phone text-messaging and BlackBerry Messenger services and then completely shutting down the internet. About 25 percent of Egypt's population uses the internet, according to BBC News.
However, an electronic manifesto, written in Arabic, had already been circulating via email before the blackout, Jensen said. The manifesto, written by Egyptian activists, makes several demands — canceling the emergency law which has been in place since 1981, an end to the Mubarak regime and a commitment to peaceful demonstrations.
The manifesto also gave practical information to demonstrators, such as about how to protect oneself during protests, and included diagrams on how to prepare for police tear gas attacks. "One piece of advice is to use Coca-Cola if you are hit by tear gas, something apparently learned in Tunisia," Jensen said.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood — Egypt's largest opposition bloc — called for its followers to demonstrate after the weekly prayers, the first time in the latest wave of unrest that the group has told supporters to take to the streets.
The authorities on Thursday arrested the party's main speaker, Issam al-Aryan, according to a relative interviewed by CNN.
The Muslim Brotherhood plans on joining the protests, which are expected to be huge.
ElBaradei warned President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt on Friday that his regime was on its "last legs." ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and political reformer, arrived in Cairo Thursday night, promising to join the protests demanding change in Egypt and offering to lead a transition.
On arrival in Cairo, ElBaradei urged Mubarak and his government to "listen to the people" and not to use violence.
However, by Friday morning he had taken on an ominous tone, sending a "message to the world" via The Guardian that "Egypt is being isolated by a regime on its last legs."
"I wish that we didn't have to go to the streets to impress on the regime that they need to change," ElBaradei told reporters after arriving in Cairo. "There is no going back. I hope the regime stops the violence, stops detaining people, stops torturing people."
Egyptians differ on their view of ElBaradei, who had been living in Vienna.
"ElBaradei, the former head of the The New York Times.
who has sought to refashion himself as pro-democracy campaigner in his homeland, is viewed by some supporters as capable of uniting the country’s fractious opposition and offering an alternative to Mr. Mubarak’s authoritarian rule. Critics view him as an opportunist who has spent too little time in the country to take control of a movement which began without his leadership," states
He will also be in Egypt in time for Friday's protests, which are expected to take place after the Friday prayers.
The government claims to have arrested 800 people, but some human rights groups say the number is closer to 2,000. Human Rights Watch demanded in a statement that Egyptian authorities only use force when necessary at the Jan. 28 protests.
"The Egyptian authorities should allow protesters to exercise their right to assemble and protest peacefully," according to Joe Stork at Human Rights Watch. "Instead, protesters have met with exactly the kind of heavy-handed abuse and repression that people are protesting against."
Meantime, a senior Iranian cleric said Friday that the violent protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen were evidence that the Iranian revolution was being replayed.
"An Islamic Middle East is taking shape," Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said in his Friday prayer sermon, the Canadia Press reported. "A new Middle East is emerging based on Islam ... based on religious democracy."
Listen to this shocking audio of a Guardian journalist being arrested and beaten by police.
See these striking photographs of the protests.
Here is a GlobalPost primer on the recent unrest across the Middle East and North Africa.
Read this GlobalPost dispatch on the roots of the protests in Egypt.
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