Egypt protesters defy crackdown threat

TWO people have been killed in Cairo and 70 others injured in clashes across Egypt as protesters defied a ban and threats of a crackdown by security forces.

In the second day of the biggest protests since President Hosni Mubarak came to power 30 years ago, Egyptians continued to demand his ouster, as shockwaves from the revolution in Tunisia increasingly worried Arab leaders.

A policeman and a protester died in Cairo in a shower of rock-throwing between the two sides, bringing the death toll to six in two days.  The latest deaths came as Washington called on Mubarak to make concessions to his angry people.  In Cairo, police fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters and chased them through the streets of a popular commercial district, witnesses said.

Protesters responded by throwing rocks at police, damaging several shop fronts in an area near the information ministry.  There were also clashes as demonstrators pushed their way through a gate into the compound of the foreign ministry before being driven out with tear gas. Protesters in Suez threw Molotov cocktails at a government building, setting parts of it on fire, witnesses said.

Others firebombed and occupied the headquarters there of the ruling National Democratic Party.  In clashes with police, who fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the crowds, 55 protesters and 15 police were injured, medics said.  And dozens were arrested in Alexandria as they tried to reach a sea-front square to demonstrate, witnesses said.

After thousands turned out across Egypt on Tuesday, the interior ministry banned further demonstrations and promised a crackdown, prompting a sharp response from long-time ally the United States Security officials said some 700 people had been arrested over two days.

Despite the interior ministry ban and a threat to arrest those who disobeyed, members of the pro-democracy youth group April 6 Movement, the driving force behind the protests, said they would take to the streets.  “We’ve started and we won’t stop,” one member said.

“To continue what we started on January 25, we will take to the streets to demand the right to life, liberty, dignity and we call on everyone to take to the streets … and to keep going until the demands of the Egyptian people have been met,” the group said.  Speaking about the protest ban, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said it was important for the Egyptian government to demonstrate “responsiveness” to its people.

Asked whether it should be lifted, Gibbs said: “Again, yes. We’re supportive of the universal rights of assembly and speech. Those are universal values.”  For her part, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on “all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence.

“We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly and we urge the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or stop communications including social media sites,” Clinton said.

And UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged “all concerned to ensure that the situation in Egypt does not lead to further violence” and called on the authorities “to see this as an opportunity to engage in addressing the legitimate concerns of the people,” his spokesman said.  The protests, inspired by the uprising in Tunisia, are the largest in Egypt since bread riots in 1977, four years before Mubarak came to power.  Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said the “government is keen to guarantee freedom of expression through legitimate means,” but he did not say what he meant by that.

Among protesters’ demands are the departure of the interior minister, whose security forces have been accused of heavy-handedness; an end to a decades-old state of emergency, which gives police wide powers of arrest and bans demonstrations; and a rise in minimum wages. The uprising in Tunisia, which led to the ouster of veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, has had a ripple effect across the Arab world.

On Wednesday, Bahrain’s King Hamad telephoned Mubarak and called for Arab leaders to meet to “adopt a strategy on the future and progress of the Arab nation, in the interests of the Arab people, their security and stability.  He also expressed confidence that Mubarak could manage Egypt and assure its stability, which he said was crucial to the “stability of all Arab nations.”

And Jordan’s King Abdullah II said his country needs to tackle popular grievances with a program of political and economic reforms, as Islamists called for more demonstrations against the government and its policies.

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