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Protests flare on Cairo streets

Concern over health of President Hosni Mubarak and discontent over the state of the economy spark clashes.

Journalists were also targeted that day. Police, hit, pushed and knocked over several reporters while their cameras and tapes were confiscated.

The violence witnessed over the past week is reminiscent of street protests from 2005, also a parliamentary election year like this one.

Such violence is par for the course in any authoritarian regime, said Kassem. “Still, the regime is firmly in control, even if they are acting more harshly than they normally do,” said Kassem. “They may be more nervous than before because they are in a period of transition.”

The transition is not yet official, but Mubarak’s age and extended absence from Egypt while in Germany recovering from gallbladder surgery last month created ample public speculation over potential successors.

Perhaps complicating matters is the recent arrival of Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the man many Egyptians are hoping will challenge Mubarak in the upcoming presidential race.

At the very least, say supporters, ElBaradei should help to bring more transparency to Egypt’s restricted political landscape, which has become stagnant over the past three decades of Mubarak’s rule.

ElBaradei received a hero’s welcome from supporters upon his arrival in Cairo in February, and has attracted hundreds to the streets in his recent travels around Egypt.

ElBaradei did not attend the latest protests, much to the dismay of supporters chanting his name in the onlooking faces of security forces.

He did, however, respond to government through his Twitter account, calling the April 6 reports “repugnant and inhumane.”

“Detentions and beatings during peaceful demonstration [sic] is an insult to the dignity of every Egyptian,” tweeted ElBaradei the day after the protest. “Shame.”

The arrests also drew condemnation in Washington. Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley announced at the daily briefing on April 7 that the U.S. was deeply concerned about arrests made under Egypt’s emergency law.

“The government of Egypt must uphold the rights of all people to express their political views peacefully and to ensure due process,” Crowley said.

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry later rejected Washington’s “interference” in Egypt’s internal affairs in a statement published in the state-funded Al-Ahram newspaper.

Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, has long been one of Washington’s closest allies in the region, home to both the Suez Canal and the Middle East’s first peace treaty with Israel.

American aid to Egypt is just under $2 billion a year, making it a recipient of one of the highest levels of U.S. foreign aid in the world.

Still, the Obama administration has yet to clarify a firm position on democracy in Egypt, where pushes for greater reform during the George W. Bush presidency ultimately led to electoral wins for the Muslim Brotherhood in the last parliamentary elections.

Members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, banned by the semi-tolerated Islamist opposition group, are frequently rounded up and jailed under the emergency law.

The popular independent journalist Salama A. Salama pointed out the irony of American foreign policy in Egypt in a recent column in Al-Ahram.

“Without the extraordinary powers the emergency laws give to [Egypt’s] government, the latter wouldn't be able to help American policy. Take for example the government's unlawful detention of dozens of Muslim Brotherhood members. Is not this a move that fits well into American policies?” he wrote last month.

“Shouldn't the Americans be pleased?”