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Unprecedented protests grip Egypt's capital

In Cairo, protesters call for end to regime of Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt Cairo Protest
Egyptian demonstrators clash with police in central Cairo during a protest to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, Jan. 25, 2011. (Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

Egyptian demonstrators calling for economic and political reforms broke through police barriers in Cairo on Tuesday, as Egypt's authoritarian government braced for one of the biggest opposition protests in recent years.

The protest is being seen as an attempt by opposition groups in Egypt to exploit the momentum of the Tunisia protests to agitate Cairo for political and economic reforms.

Over the weekend, large antigovernment demonstrations broke out in Jordan, Yemen and Algeria, while more men — particularly in Egypt and Algeria — have joined the ranks of self-immolators inspired by Mohammed Bouazizi, whose suicide sparked the Tunisia protests.

On Facebook, more than 85,000 people have pledged to attend Egypt's nationwide antigovernment protest, according to Time magazine. If even half that many people were to show up Tuesday, it would be a historic day for Egyptian political activism under the Mubarak regime, wrote the magazine's Abigail Hauslohner in Cairo.

In downtown Cairo Tuesday, protesters gathered outside the Supreme Court and held large signs that read "Tunisia is the solution" amid massive police deployment, according to Agence France-Presse.

Chanting "Down with Mubarak" — in reference to President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power for three decades — they broke through several police cordons and began marching towards Tahrir Square, a scene seldom seen in Egypt.

Unrest across the region is being driven by the same social and economic factors seen in Tunisia, and which led to the Jan. 14 ouster of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, including high unemployment, a booming birth rate and exploding food prices.

According to the International Monetary Fund, if chronic unemployment and the social tensions that accompany it are to be avoided the Middle East needs to create another 18 million jobs in the next 10 years.

Mubarak, 82, fears the power of populism. He allows opponents of his regime a limited political voice in the hope it will defuse anger at his power monopoly.

Ayman Nour, an opposition leader jailed by Mubarak and only released following U.S. pressure, believes Tunisia's revolt has shortened Mubarak's days in power, according to CNN.

And according to El-Erian, of the Muslim Brotherhood: "Without solving the main problems we can only delay the revolution, delay the intifada [uprising]."

Nour, quoted by CNN, said: "How change happened in Tunisia was the last resort after all peaceful methods were no longer an option. This is what happened in Tunisia and this is what could happen in Egypt. It is the only solution to a situation that never changes."

There is a presidential election scheduled in Egypt in September.

Mubarak's government in 2008 is considering blocking Facebook, a favorite venue for Egypt's disaffected youth, after one group mobilized 80,000 supporters to protest rising food prices. Facebook networking also played a crucial role in broadening support and turnout for a 2009 textile workers' strike and protest.

And shortly after the 2009 murder of Khaled Said, a small businessman in the historic Egyptian city of Alexandria who was dragged from an Internet cafe by police and beaten to death in the street, a Facebook page appeared under the name “We Are All Khaled Said.”

The page quickly spiraled into a campaign against police brutality and rights abuses in Egypt —  posting often-graphic photo and video, and publishing the names of allegedly abusive cops.