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Egypt's Mubarak imposes curfew after day of protests rocks regime

Members of the Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak presidential guard deploy outside the national television building in Cairo on January 28, 2011.


Egypt's military deployed on the streets of Cairo to enforce a nighttime curfew as the sun set Friday on a day of rioting and chaos that was a major escalation in the challenge to authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule.

Thousands defied the night curfew in the capital Cairo and were trying to storm two major government buildings - the state TV and the Foreign Ministry. Others were praying on the streets of Cairo after nightfall.

Flames rose up across a number of cities from burning tires and police cars. Even the ruling party headquarters in Cairo was ablaze in the outpouring of rage, bitterness and utter frustration with a regime seen as corrupt, heavy-handed and neglectful of grinding poverty that afflicts nearly half of the 80 million Egyptians. Some protesters were looting television sets and electric fans from the burning headquarters.

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One protester was killed, bringing the death toll for four days of protest to eight.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in his capacity as head of the military, announced a curfew across the country starting from Friday. "According to what some provinces witnessed in terms of riots, lawlessness, looting, destruction, attack and burning of public and private property including attacks on banks and hotels, President Hosni Mubarak decreed a curfew as a military ruler," a state TV announcer said.

The curfew is to last from 6 p.m. (local time) to 7 a.m. It was the most drastic measure so far to quell daily riots and protests that began Tuesday and spiraled into chaos on Friday after noon prayers.

Tens of thousands of determined motivated protestors clashed with well organized security forces in Cairo Friday leaving the city clouded by smoke and acrid tear gas. At 5 p.m. local time, the riot police held the upper hand in a battle that had see-sawed back and forth on the roads and bridges leading to the capital's downtown Tahrir Square.

"Go like Farouk," they chanted. "Gamal, tell you father it's time to go," referring to President Hosni Mubarak's son.

"We just want the freedoms of any civilized country," said Hassan Ali, a professor of radiology at Cairo University.

Fighting broke out as soon as Friday prayers finished at the central mosque in Giza, just north of Cairo, where Mohamed ElBaradei was praying amidst the crowd.

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The instant the last prayer ended, the people began chanting "Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!" and "Go! Go! Go!"

Just as soon as Mr. ElBaradei made his way from the mosque, the security forces moved, speeding water cannons into the spot left by Mr. ElBaradei, the Nobel-prize winning former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who is considering a run for Egypt's presidency later this year.

Half the crowd moved down Giza Avenue where they linked with thousands of people who had walked from districts to the east.

There, beside the Sheraton Hotel, the protesters fought a relentless battle with security troops that barred entry to the El Gala bridge over part of the Nile.

Wave after wave of people charged at the troops, throwing no rocks and using no violence, only shouting at the forces. They then were beaten back by a particularly strong tear gas.

The crowd was remarkably determined to advance despite the painful experience. By about the eighth charge, the police parted and let the crowd cross on the bridge.

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The victory was temporary, however, as about a kilometre on they faced a larger force, preventing them from crossing the Tahrir bridge to the mainland.

At one point, the crowd had pressed the forces back about three quarters of the way across the bridge. Joined by reinforcement, however, the police pushed the crowd back with an endless barrage of gas, sound grenades and water cannons.

By 4 p.m., the thousands of protestors appeared isolated on Zamalek island in the middle of the Nile.

The government took command of the situation early in the day. When first they shut down the Internet at midnight, local cell phones were shut down by about 10 a.m., and even the BlackBerry network was closed by about 11:30.

Unable to communicate with each other while in the field, the groups proceeded almost leaderless right into the arms of the riot police.

As of 5 p.m., this symbolic Tahrir Square remains firmly in control of the government's security forces.

Egypt's rulers were bluntly told by the Obama administration to turn the internet back on and restore the communications links that have spreading news of mounting unrest across the Arab world.

Egypt's aging and ailing Mr. Mubarak, a staunch U.S. ally for 30 years, was publicly told by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to halt the brutal repression of democracy demonstrators and restore the internet and cellular telephone system which were cut last night.

In a blunt statement, Ms. Clinton said the ruling regime in Cairo must "allow peaceful protests and to reverse the unprecedented steps it has taken to cut off communications."

She also bestowed legitimacy of the demands of the demonstrators, in the strongest statement yet of the Obama administration that it will no longer back President Mubarak if he attempts to crush peaceful protest.

"These protests underscore that there are deep grievances within Egyptian society, and the Egyptian government needs to understand that violence will not make these grievances go away," she said.

The Mubarak government "needs to engage immediately with the Egyptian people in implementing needed economic, political and social reforms," she said.

The riots were a major escalation in the movement that began on Tuesday to demand 82-year-old Mubarak's ouster and vent rage at years of government neglect of rampant poverty, unemployment and rising food prices. Security officials said protesters ransacked the headquarters of Mubarak's ruling party in the cities of Mansoura north of Cairo and Suez, east of the capital.

Egyptians outside the country were posting updates on Twitter after getting information in voice calls from people inside the country. Many urged their friends to keep up the flow of information over the phones.

Despite the Internet outage, Mohamed Ibrahim Elmasry - a professor emeritus of computer science at the University of Waterloo - found a way to update his Facebook page earlier today with dramatic videos of the protests taken from his apartment in Cairo.

Prof. Elmasry gave his permission to social media website Storyful to upload the videos to YouTube, one of which shows police using water cannons to repel protesters.

Another Facebook page run by protesters listed their demands. They want Mubarak to declare that neither he nor his son will stand for next presidential elections; dissolve the parliament holds new elections; end to emergency laws giving police extensive powers of arrest and detention; release all prisoners including protesters and those who have been in jail for years without charge or trial; and immediately fire the interior minister.

Some of the most serious violence Friday was in Suez, where protesters seized weapons stored in a police station and asked the policemen inside to leave the building before they burned it down. They also set ablaze about 20 police trucks parked nearby. Demonstrators exchanged fire with policemen trying to stop them from storming another police station and one protester was killed in the gun battle.

The death brought the toll of those killed in four days of protests to eight.

The president 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.

A BBC reporter said he was badly beaten by Cairo police who he accused of targeting foreign journalists covering anti-government protests in the Egyptian capital.

"They were targeting journalists deliberately," said Assad Sawey, who sported a bloodied bandage on his head as he spoke to BBC World television in Cairo.

"They took my camera away and when they arrested me they started beating me up with steel bars... like the ones used here for slaughtering animals," he said.

With files from The Globe's Paul Koring in Washington, AP, AFP and Reuters

To follow the latest updates from journalists in Egypt, follow The Globe and Mail's Egypt Twitter list.

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