Egypt clamps down on protesters

Offers a dialogue with banned group

Protesters threw stones at supporters of Egypt’s president in Tahrir Square in Cairo yesterday. Opposition leaders hope for bigger demonstrations today. Protesters threw stones at supporters of Egypt’s president in Tahrir Square in Cairo yesterday. Opposition leaders hope for bigger demonstrations today. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)
By Anthony Shadid
New York Times / February 4, 2011

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CAIRO — The Egyptian government broadened its crackdown of a 10-day uprising that has shaken its rule yesterday, arresting journalists and human rights advocates across an edgy city, while offering more concessions in a bid to win support from a population growing more frustrated with a devastated economy and scenes of chaos in the streets.

The campaign blended the oldest tactics of an authoritarian government — stoking fears of foreigners — with the air of sincerity of a repentant order. Trying to seize the initiative from a revolt that has marked one of the most decisive moments in modern Egyptian history, the government promised that neither President Hosni Mubarak nor his son Gamal, long seen as a contender for power, would run for president and offered dialogue with the banned Muslim Brotherhood, gestures almost unthinkable only weeks ago.

As protesters battled crowds rallied by the government for a second day, organizers sought to rally even bigger demonstrations for today — dubbed the “Friday of departure’’ — in hopes of keeping the momentum behind a popular uprising that has demanded Mubarak step down after three decades in power.

Voiced often in the tumultuous scenes of defiance and determination in Tahrir Square was a fear that if they lost, the protesters and their organizers would bear the brunt of a withering crackdown.

“If we can’t bring this to an end, we’re going to all be in the slammer by June,’’ said Murad Mohsen, a doctor treating the wounded at a makeshift clinic near barricades, where thousands fought off droves of government supporters with rocks and firebombs.

The government’s strategy seems motivated at turning broader opinion in the country against the protests and perhaps wearing down the demonstrators themselves, some of whom seemed exhausted by the clashes. Vice President Omar Suleiman, appointed Saturday to a position that Mubarak had until then refused to fill, appealed to Egypt’s sense of decency in allowing Mubarak to serve out his term, and he chronicled the mounting losses that, he said, the uprising had inflicted on a crippled Egyptian economy.

“End your sit-in,’’ he said. “Your demands have been answered.’’

In interviews and statements, the government has increasingly spread an image that foreigners were inciting the uprising, a refrain echoed in the streets. The suggestions are part of a dayslong Egyptian media campaign that has portrayed the protesters as troublemakers and ignored the scope of an uprising with diffuse goals and leadership.

“Millions turn out to support Mubarak,’’ read the banner headline yesterday on the front page of Al-Ahram, the leading government newspaper.

The propaganda has been so pronounced that an announcer on Nile Television, Shahira Amin, quit in protest.

“I cleared my conscience and walked out,’’ she said.

Police raided the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, a headquarters for many of the international human rights organizations working in Egypt. The human rights workers were told to lie face down on the ground as the chips were removed from the telephones, someone present in the building said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

As the day wore on, tension descended across parts of the city, which is still guarded by popular committees that banded together after the police withdrew Saturday. Government supporters roamed parts of the downtown, itching for a fight, and looters set fire to a shopping mall along the Nile that was already looted and burned on Friday.

The menace was a counterpoint to Tahrir Square, where the literati and well-off demonstrators mixed with the poorest of rough-and-tumble neighborhoods in scenes of camaraderie and determination that have made the square an emblem of the revolt. Protesters flashed V-for-victory signs at dawn, celebrating their success in holding the square and even pushing the barricades forward in clashes that dragged through the night. Doctors said at least seven people had been killed in the clashes and hundreds wounded.

Even those who lamented the turn to violence blamed Mubarak’s supporters for provoking them and vowed not to relinquish the square.

“Right now, it’s all here, protecting Tahrir Square,’’ said Hisham Kassem, a veteran activist and publisher, who kept a wary eye on barricades built with corrugated tin, wrecked cars and trucks, barrels, buckets filled with sand, and metal railing torn from the curb. “We keep it tonight, and tomorrow the whole country is going to come out.’’

He surveyed the crowd and shook his head.

“I can’t face the idea of this failing,’’ he said.

For days, the government seemed to stagger at the scale of an uprising that overwhelmed Egypt’s once ubiquitous security forces Friday. The concessions yesterday marked its most concerted attempt to address at least some of the longstanding demands in a country that many believe has stagnated under Mubarak’s rule. The newly appointed prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, apologized for the violence and vowed to investigate who instigated it. Suleiman followed with a lengthy television interview in which he recognized what he described as “the revolution of the youth.’’

Suleiman sought to project an image of good will, offering dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, which remains banned, even though it is the country’s most influential opposition group. In a sign of the new landscape, Suleiman referred to it by name rather than the government’s usual coded language, although he and Mubarak have both suggested it was behind the revolt. Its followers have played a forceful role in the protests, but its leaders have, so far, tried to remain in the background.

“We have contacted the Muslim Brotherhood and invited them, but they are still hesitant about the dialogue,’’ Suleiman said. “I think that their interest is to attend the dialogue.’’

Other concessions came from Egypt’s public prosecutor, who issued a travel ban on former government ministers and an official of the ruling National Democratic Party on suspicion of theft of public money, profiteering, and fraud, state television reported. Among the four was the hated former interior minister, Habib el-Adly, who commanded a police force that was despised for its corruption and routine use of torture.

So far, the government’s concessions have done little to diminish the protests, but the relentless message of officials that Egypt faced chaos seemed, at least anecdotally, to be finding an audience. Mubarak made the same point in an interview with ABC, saying that he was eager to step down, but that if he did, “Egypt would sink into chaos.’’

“This is enough,’’ said Ahmed Mohamed, a 22-year-old broker at the National Bank of Kuwait. “I want life to go back to normal. We want to go back to work. And what we have done in 72 hours we couldn’t achieve in 30 years. It’s only a few months until Mubarak leaves.’’ top stories on Twitter

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