Egypt's Protests Turn Ugly as Regime Changes Tactics

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Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Riot police clash with protesters in Cairo January 26, 2011. Thousands of Egyptians defied a ban on protests by returning to Egypt's streets on Wednesday and calling for President Hosni Mubarak to leave office, and some scuffled with police.

Updated: Jan. 27, 2011 at 6:30 a.m. EST

The momentum that swept thousands of Egyptians into the streets on Tuesday to protest, hit a wall on Wednesday — at least temporarily. As the day began, the regime of President Hosni Mubarak moved swiftly to try to prevent a repeat, with the Interior Ministry declaring "No provocative movements or protest gatherings or organizing marches or demonstrations will be allowed."

Rows of dark green troop carriers and police trucks lined the large thoroughfares and traffic circles, and stood positioned outside major government buildings in Egypt's major cities. Thousands of riot police stood at alert, shields and batons readied. In some districts of Cairo, units of a hundred or more uniformed men each could be seen marching through the streets.

Still, many demonstrators took to the pavement again and pushed into a second day the first mass political protest in recent Egyptian history. But Day Two was different. While police allowed thousands to march through Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities on Jan. 25, on the 26th they reverted to the tactics more typically associated with Mubarak's heavy-handed state: cordoning off demonstrators against walls; and setting swarms of knife- and stick-wielding plainclothes thugs against others. The Associated Press reported that 860 people had been arrested since Tuesday, and four protesters and two policemen had been killed.

There was a difference too to the demonstrators on Wednesday, striking a more hostile tone, made up of a more specific demographic. The majority appeared to be young men — in contrast to Tuesday's wider range of age and gender and its sense of a broad communal but controlled anger. Some of the day's most violent protests played out in poorer areas of Cairo, beyond the vast central Tahrir Square where Tuesday's demonstration culminated.

In Cairo's working class neighborhood of Boulaq, demonstrators hurled rocks at police who retaliated with batons and showers of tear gas in the early evening. By 7 p.m., broken glass and shards of stone littered the roadway, and tear gas still hung in the air. But the protestors had scattered and regrouped in other areas in the neighborhood, including outside the journalists' union and in the alleys of a clothes market.

Everywhere, the message was the same: "The people want the fall of the regime," the protesters chanted as they marched over broken glass. On the Corniche, Cairo's busy road along the Nile, protesters stopped traffic, setting a dumpster on fire and chanting "Down, Down Mubarak!" Moments later, they scattered after a charge by over a dozen plainclothes thugs, armed with sticks and knives, who chased them in between cars and onto a nearby bridge.

Throughout the evening, TIME's Cairo reporter continued to hear reports of an impeding rally in the center of the city. And at around 11 p.m., a group of protesters attacked the Foreign Ministry, ransacking an outside office, before being pushed back.

The government released statements on Tuesday and Wednesday that sought to place much of the blame for Tuesday's protest on Egypt's largest opposition group, the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Activists who actually participated in the demonstrations say the allegation is bogus. "They're trying to play the same old cards — by threatening the West and the United States that when this regime leaves power, the Muslim Brotherhood will take over. This is absolutely not true," says Shadi Taha, a member of the liberal Tomorrow Party, whose leader Ayman Nour — a darling of the Bush administration — was on the street on Tuesday. "What we witnessed yesterday was that more than 90% of those people who took to the streets... it was probably their first time to demonstrate. We used to call them the silent majority — the majority that is not involved in politics, who have never been involved in politics, and who definitely are not involved in the Muslim Brotherhood."

Indeed, though rank-and-file have joined the marches, Brotherhood leaders have expressed only lukewarm support for the protest in the days leading up to it. Many signaled that they would not participate. Joshua Stacher, a political scientist at Kent State University says that the behavior of the Brotherhood's top echelon can be used as a kind of reality check on whether the current protest movement can really get off the ground. "I think the Brotherhood's leadership understands the political reality really well," he says. The regime has traditionally cracked down on the Brotherhood harder than it has on any other group. "And they're just not seeing that this would take off, given the existing scenario in Egypt. So why would they get involved in something that isn't going to get them a lot of traction?

The full support of Egypt's largest opposition group would certainly help momentum. But so would the support of Egypt's allies, other activists say. And so far, the response has been a disappointment. "Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters on Tuesday. The U.S. administration issued statements urging all parties to refrain from violence, and urging the Egyptian regime to respond to demands for reform. But it stopped short of criticizing one of its most important Mideast allies. "The United States is a partner of Egypt and the Egyptian people in this process, which we believe should unfold in a peaceful atmosphere," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley in a statement.

It was a response that many Egyptian opposition members have found infuriating. And the frustration has bubbled up into some of the protests. "Mubarak — you're an American puppet," the crowd chanted on Tuesday and Wednesday.

If the protests gain further momentum (and Thursday's will see Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei returning home to take part in them, with his saying, "I am going back to Cairo and back onto the streets, because, really, there is no choice."), that earlier taunt that could come to haunt Egypt's most powerful ally. "The faulty assumptions of U.S. policy have been laid bare for everyone to see," says Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at the Brookings Doha Center. "The U.S. position is unsustainable — there's no doubt about that now. This approach of depending on supposedly stable regimes has backfired. And now the U.S. is on the wrong side of history."