BREAKING NEWS: EGYPT: Web Shut Down Ahead Of Major Protest As Unrest Rages: UPDATED

28 Jan

 Video: Thousands Due To Protest Across Egypt

Mass Egypt anti-government protest planned
Play Video AP  – Mass Egypt anti-government protest planned

Anti-government protests in Egypt Slideshow:Anti-government protests in Egypt

Reuters – A riot policeman walks past burning tyres placed to form a barricade during clashes with protesters in …
 

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egyptian demonstrators fought security forces into the early hours of Friday in the city of Suez, and the Internet was blocked ahead of the biggest protests yet planned against President Hosni Mubarak‘s 30-year rule.

Emboldened by this month’s revolt that toppled the authoritarian leader of Tunisia, Egyptians have staged mass protests since Tuesday. The biggest demonstrations yet are planned for Friday afternoon after weekly prayers.

“This is a revolution,” one 16-year-old protester said in Suez late on Thursday. “Every day we’re coming back here.”

Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, who returned to Egypt from Vienna on Thursday, has called for Mubarak to resign and said he would join the protests on Friday.

Internet access was shut down across the country shortly after midnight. Mobile phone text messaging services also appeared to be partially disabled, working only sporadically.

Activists have relied on the Internet, especially social media services like Twitter and Facebook, to organize.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a “tweet” message on Twitter: “We are concerned that communications services, including the Internet, social media, and even this tweet are being blocked in Egypt.”

A page on Facebook social networking site listed more than 30 mosques and churches where protesters were expected gather.

“Egypt’s Muslims and Christians will go out to fight against corruption, unemployment and oppression and absence of freedom.”

In Suez, which has been ground zero for some of the most violent demonstrations, police fired tear gas at protesters who hurled stones and petrol bombs into the early hours of Friday. Fires burned in the street, filling the air with smoke.

The city fire station was ablaze. Waves of protesters charged toward a police station deep into the night. Demonstrators dragged away their wounded comrades into alleys.

Security forces shot dead a protester in the north of the Sinai region on Thursday, bringing the death toll to five.

Video images obtained by Reuters showed the man among a small group of protesters some distance from the security forces when he suddenly collapsed with a gunshot wound and was dragged away by other demonstrators. The video circulated widely on the Internet, galvanizing anger.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including at least eight senior officials of the opposition group and its main spokesmen, were rounded up overnight. A security source said authorities had ordered a crackdown on the group.

“WIPED FROM THE GLOBAL MAP”

U.S.-based Internet monitoring firm Renesys said the total shut-down of the Internet it recorded early on Friday was “unprecedented in Internet history,” going far beyond measures taken during Tunisia’s protests or a 2009 uprising in Iran.

“Renesys observed the virtually simultaneous withdrawal of all routes to Egyptian networks in the Internet’s global routing table,” it said. “The Egyptian government’s actions tonight have essentially wiped their country from the global map.”

The United States is Egypt’s close ally and major donor, and has tread carefully over unrest in a country it considers a bulwark of Middle East stability.

In his first comments on the unrest, President Barack Obama avoided signs of abandoning Mubarak but made clear he sympathized with demonstrators.

“…I’ve always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on reform — political reform, economic reform — is absolutely critical to the long-term well-being of Egypt,” Obama said in comments broadcast on the YouTube website.

“You can see these pent-up frustrations that are being displayed on the streets.”

ElBaradei and other opposition figures say the government exploits the Islamist opposition to justify authoritarianism.

The Muslim Brotherhood has kept a low profile during the protests, although of its supporters were expected to join demonstrations on Friday. The government has accused it of planning to exploit the youth protests for its “hidden agendas,” while the Brotherhood says it is being used as a scapegoat.

FRUSTRATED

As in many other countries across the Middle East, Egyptians are frustrated over surging prices, unemployment and an authoritarian government that tolerates little dissent.

Many of them are young. Two thirds of Egypt’s 80 million people are below the age of 30, and many of them have no jobs. About 40 percent of Egyptians live on less than a $2 a day.

The government has urged Egyptians to act with restraint on Friday. Safwat Sherif, secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party, told reporters:

“We hope that tomorrow’s Friday prayers and its rituals happen in a quiet way that upholds the value of such rituals … and that no one jeopardizes the safety of citizens or subjects them to something they do not want.”

ElBaradei, 68, a former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog who has campaigned for change in his native country since last year, told reporters at Cairo’s airport he would take part in Friday’s protests. He added: “I wish we did not have to go out on the streets to press the regime to act.”

(Additional reporting by Dina Zayed and Marwa Awad in Cairo, Alexander Dziadosz in Suez; Writing by Edmund Blair and Peter Graff)

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NEWS UPDATE:
Thousands of people are expected to take to the streets across Egypt today to protest against the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak.
Thousands Due To Protest Across Egypt Enlarge photo

Protesters have warned it will be the biggest day of protests, as crowds gather after Friday prayers.

However Egypt’s interior ministry said it will take “decisive measures” against anti-government protests and has already deployed special operations forces.

The government warning comes after deadly clashes with police that have killed at least five people on the third day of violence across the country.

Egyptians have been urged to join mass protests and the influential Islamist transnational Muslim Brotherhood backed the planned protests.

The Brotherhood is the largest power structure in Egypt besides the army and state, and last night authorities ordered a crackdown on the group, arresting at least three key activists.

“We have orders for security sweeps of the Brotherhood,” a security source said.

A lawyer for two Brotherhood leaders, Dr. Essam El-Erian and Dr. Mohamed Mursi, revealed they had been arrested, along with a number of other members.

Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry Messenger services have been interrupted, and protesters also voiced fears over mobile phone and internet access being cut during the day.

LATEST NEWS UPDATE:
Egypt’s interior ministry warned of “decisive measures” as dissidents planned to rally after Friday noon prayers for a fourth day in a row in the country’s most serious anti-government unrest in decades.
The demonstrations have sent shockwaves across the region Enlarge photo

The warning came as internet services suffered disruptions and cell phone text messaging was down, both used by organisers of this week’s protests that led to deadly clashes between police and demonstraters.

As the unrest continued, US President Barack Obama warned that violence was not the answer, urging restraint on both sides, and also pressing President Hosni Mubarak to adopt political reforms.

The country’s largest opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, said late Thursday that it would participate in Friday’s protests, in a departure from the cautious approach it took towards the protests that started on Tuesday.

At least 20 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested overnight Friday, its lawyer Abdelmoneim Abdel Maqsoud told AFP.

Among those arrested at their homes were five former members of parliament and five members of the political bureau, whose best known leaders are Essam El-Eriane and Mohammed Moursi.

The country’s leading dissident, Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, also said he would take part in the protests after arriving late Thursday from a visit to Vienna.

“It is a critical time in the life of Egypt. I have come to participate with the Egyptian people,” ElBaradei, a vocal critic of Mubarak, said before leaving Cairo airport.

Earlier, in Vienna, he told reporters he was ready to “lead the transition” in Egypt if asked.

“I am still here hoping to continue to manage the process of change in an orderly way, in a peaceful way. I hope the regime will do the same.”

But Egypt’s interior ministry warned that it would take “decisive measures” against anti-government protesters.

The angry nationwide demonstrations have swelled into the largest uprising in three decades.

Seven people have been killed — five protesters and two policemen — and more than 100 injured.

And a security official told AFP around 1,000 people had been arrested since the protests began.

Human Rights Watch said eight demonstrators and a policeman had been killed in protests in Cairo, Suez, Alexandria and other cities. The US-based group said Egyptian police had escalated the use of force against largely peaceful demonstrations, calling it “wholly unacceptable and disproportionate.”

A heavy security clampdown prevented protesters from massing in the centre of Cairo as they did on Tuesday and Wednesday, but clashes erupted in the cities of Suez and Ismailiya, and in a Sinai town where police shot dead a protester, witnesses said.

Internet users reported that they either could not access the web, or that services were very slow, while text messaging went down.

Earlier Thursday, members of the pro-democracy youth group April 6 Movement said they would continue to take to the streets, defying a ban on demonstrations announced on Wednesday.

Activists had circulated SMS messages and posted appeals on social networking site Facebook for fresh demonstrations “to demand the right to live with freedom and dignity.”

The demonstrations against Mubarak’s heavy-handed rule, inspired by the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia, have sent shockwaves across the region and prompted Washington to prod its long-time ally on democratic reforms.

Obama, in his first on-camera reaction to the demonstrations sweeping Egypt, said “violence is not the answer in solving these problems in Egypt.”

In a YouTube question-and-answer session about his State of the Union address on Tuesday, he said he had always made clear to Mubarak it was “absolutely critical” for him to move towards political reform.

Egypt is one of the United States’ closest allies in the region, but analysts say Washington is growing increasingly concerned that its refusal to implement more political reforms could lead to unrest and instability.

Events on the street rocked Egypt’s stock exchange, which suspended trading temporarily on Thursday after a drop of 6.2 percent in the benchmark EGX 30 index, a day after it fell six percent. The market closed with a drop of over 10 percent.

Meanwhile, the secretary general of the ruling National Democratic Party told reporters Thursday the authorities are open to dialogue with the country’s young people, who are spearheading demonstrations.

“We have held several meetings with the youth, but in the future we will be more understanding in our approach so that they can be participants,” Sawfat al-Sherif told a news conference.

Clashes broke out in the north Sinai town of Sheikh Zuwayed where witnesses and relatives said a youth died when he was shot in the head by police during a firefight.

In Suez, east of Cairo at the mouth of the Suez Canal, police fired rubber-coated bullets, tear gas and water cannon at hundreds of people gathered to demand the release of some 75 people arrested on Tuesday and Wednesday.

In Ismailiya to the north, witnesses reported that police were firing tear gas at demonstrators, who responded by throwing rocks.

Among protesters’ demands are the departure of the interior minister, whose security forces have been accused of heavy-handedness, and an end to a decades-old state of emergency and a rise in minimum wages.

The demonstrations have sent shockwaves across the region Enlarge photo

US President Barack Obama urged restraint on both sides Enlarge photo

NEWS UPDATE:

By HAMZA HENDAWI and SARAH EL DEEB, Associated Press Hamza Hendawi And Sarah El Deeb, Associated Press:

CAIRO – Internet service in Egypt was disrupted and the government deployed an elite special operations force in Cairo on Friday, hours before an anticipated new wave of anti-government protests.

The developments were a sign that President Hosni Mubarak’s regime was toughening its crackdown following the biggest protests in years against his nearly 30-year rule.

The counter-terror force, rarely seen on the streets, took up positions in strategic locations, including central Tahrir Square, site of the biggest demonstrations this week.

Facebook and Twitter have helped drive this week’s protests. But by Thursday evening, those sites were disrupted, along with cell phone text messaging and BlackBerry Messenger services. Then the Internet went down.

Earlier, the grass-roots movement got a double boost — the return of Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei and the backing of the biggest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood.

After midnight, security forces arrested at least five Brotherhood leaders and five former Members of Parliament, according to the group’s lawyer, Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maksoud, and spokesman, Walid Shalaby. They said security forces had also taken a large number of Brotherhood members in a sweep in Cairo and elsewhere.

The real test for the protest movement will be whether Egypt’s fragmented opposition can come together, with Friday’s rallies expected to be some of the biggest so far.

Social networking sites were abuzz that the gatherings called after Friday prayers could attract huge numbers of protesters demanding the ouster of Mubarak. Millions gather at mosques across the city on Fridays, giving organizers a vast pool of people to tap into.

The 82-year-old Mubarak has not been seen in public or heard from since the protests began Tuesday with tens of thousands marching in Cairo and a string of other cities. While he may still have a chance to ride out this latest challenge, his choices are limited, and all are likely to lead to a loosening of his grip on power.

Violence escalated on Thursday at protests outside the capital. In the flashpoint city of Suez, along the strategic Suez Canal, protesters torched a fire station and looted weapons that they then turned on police. The Interior Ministry said in a statement that more than 90 police officers were injured in those clashes. There were no immediate figures on the number of injured protesters.

In the northern Sinai area of Sheik Zuweid, several hundred Bedouins and police exchanged gunfire, killing a 17-year-old. About 300 protesters surrounded a police station from rooftops of nearby buildings and fired two rocket-propelled grenades at it, damaging the walls.

Video of the shooting of the teenager, Mohamed Attef, was supplied to a local journalist and obtained by AP Television News. Attef crumpled to the ground after being shot on the street. He was alive as fellow protesters carried him away but later died.

The United States, Mubarak’s main Western backer, has been publicly counseling reform and an end to the use of violence against protesters, signs the Egyptian leader may no longer be enjoying Washington’s full backing.

In an interview broadcast live on YouTube, President Barack Obama said 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.

Noting that Mubarak has been “an ally of ours on a lot of critical issues,” Obama added: “I’ve always said to him that making sure that they’re moving forward on reform, political reform and economic reform, is absolutely critical to the long-term well-being of Egypt.”

“And you can see these pent-up frustrations that are being displayed on the streets,” Obama said.

In a move likely to help swell the numbers on the streets, the Muslim Brotherhood ended days of inaction to throw its support behind the demonstrations. On its website, the outlawed group said it would join “with all the national Egyptian forces, the Egyptian people, so that this coming Friday will be the general day of rage for the Egyptian nation.”

However, Internet disruptions were reported by a major service provider for Egypt. Italy-based Seabone said there was no Internet traffic going into or out of the country after 12:30 a.m. local time Friday.

For the Brotherhood, still smarting from their recent defeat in a parliamentary election marred by fraud, the protests offer a rare opportunity to seize on what is increasingly shaping up as the best shot at regime change since Mubarak came to office in 1981.

The Brotherhood has sought to depict itself as a force pushing for democratic change in Egypt’s authoritarian system, and is trying to shed an image among critics that it aims to seize power and impose Islamic law. The group was involved in political violence for decades until it renounced violence in the 1970s.

The Brotherhood’s support and the return of ElBaradei were likely to energize a largely youth-led protest movement that, by sustaining unrest over days, has shaken assumptions that Mubarak’s security apparatus can keep a tight lid on popular unrest.

ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog and a leading Mubarak opponent, has sought to recreate himself as a pro-democracy campaigner in his homeland. He is viewed by some supporters as a figure capable of uniting the country’s fractious opposition and providing the movement with a road map for the future.

For ElBaradei, it is a chance to shake off his image as an elitist who is out of touch after years of living abroad, first as an Egyptian diplomat and later with the United Nations.

Speaking to reporters Thursday before his departure for Cairo, ElBaradei said: “If people, in particular young people, … want me to lead the transition, I will not let them down. My priority right now … is to see a new regime and to see a new Egypt through peaceful transition.”

Once on Egyptian soil, he struck a conciliatory note.

“We’re still reaching out to the regime to work with them for the process of change. Every Egyptian doesn’t want to see the country going into violence,” he said. “Our hand is outstretched.”

“I wish that we didn’t have to go to the streets to impress on the regime that they need to change,” ElBaradei said. “There is no going back. I hope the regime stops the violence, stops detaining people, stops torturing people.”

With Mubarak out of sight, the ruling National Democratic Party said Thursday it was ready for a dialogue with the public but offered no concessions to address demands for a solution to rampant poverty, unemployment and political change.

Safwat El-Sherif, the party’s secretary general and a longtime confidant of Mubarak, was dismissive of the protests at the first news conference by a senior ruling party figure since the unrest began.

“We are confident of our ability to listen. The NDP is ready for a dialogue with the public, youth and legal parties,” he said. “But democracy has its rules and process. The minority does not force its will on the majority.”

El-Sharif’s comments were likely to reinforce the belief held by many protesters that Mubarak’s regime is incapable, or unwilling, to introduce reforms that will meet their demands. That could give opposition parties an opening to win popular support if they close ranks and promise changes sought by the youths at the forefront of the unrest.

Mubarak has not said yet whether he will stand for another six-year term as president in elections this year. He has never appointed a deputy and is thought to be grooming his son Gamal to succeed him despite popular opposition. According to leaked U.S. memos, hereditary succession also does not meet with the approval of the powerful military.

Mubarak has seen to it that no viable alternative to him has been allowed to emerge. Constitutional amendments adopted in 2005 by the NDP-dominated parliament has made it virtually impossible for independents like ElBaradei to run for president.

Continuing the heavy-handed methods used by the security forces the past three days would probably buy his regime a little time but could strengthen the resolve of the protesters and win them popular sympathy.

The alternative is to introduce a package of political and economic reforms that would end his party’s monopoly on power and ensure that the economic liberalization policies engineered by his son and heir apparent Gamal over the past decade benefit the country’s poor majority.

He could also lift the emergency laws in force since 1981, loosen restrictions on the formation of political parties and publicly state whether he will stand for another six-year term in elections this year.

Mubarak’s regime suffered another serious blow Thursday when the stock market’s benchmark index fell more than 10 percent by close, its biggest drop in more two years on the back of a 6 percent fall a day earlier.

Egypt’s situation is similar to Iran’s manipulation of the Internet during the 2009 disputed elections, said Craig Labovitz, chief scientist for Arbor Networks, a Chelmsford, Mass.-based security company.

Blocking the Web in countries that exert strong control over their Internet providers is not difficult, he said, because companies that own fiber optic cables and other technologies are often under strict licenses from the government.

“I don’t think there’s a big red button — it’s probably a phone call that goes out to half a dozen folks,” he said.

___

Associated Press reporters Hadeel al-Shalchi and Tarek al-Tablawy contributed to this report. AP Technology Writer Jordan Robertson contributed from San Francisco. .

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