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Egypt Protests Erupt Into Tear-Gassed Violence

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Tens of thousands protesters across Egypt waged pitched battles with riot police for a fourth day on Friday as decades of pent-up anger erupted against an authoritarian regime they say has done little to alleviate years of rampant poverty, unemployment and rising food prices.

Stones from protesters — most leaving mosques after Friday prayers — were met by rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons from the police lines in a near-replay of the violence earlier this month that swept through another North African country, Tunisia, forcing out the autocratic government.

At this stage, the Egyptians protesters simply “want Mr. Mubarak to step down, his regime to go, his cabinet to leave [and] the parliament that was elected in controversial elections” in 2005 to be dissolved, NPR’s Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported from the capital Cairo, where the largest demonstrations were taking place.

The government appeared to be taking no chances — shutting down Internet and cell-phone services across the country in an apparent effort to disrupt the protests that have quickly grown into the biggest challenge to Mubarak’s rule in 30 years, she said.

“It’s been impossible to use Facebook or Twitter, which has been the way that protesters have been sort of figuring out where to go and how to organize,” Sarhaddi Nelson said.

Near Tahrir Square, center stage for the Cairo protesters, a phalanx of riot police wearing helmets and carrying shields moved in Friday to intercept anti-government demonstrators. The protesters marched across a bridge over the Nile and moved toward the square, where police began firing tear gas into the crowds.

Sarhaddi Nelson said about 10,000 demonstrators tried to enter the square but that “police basically blocked off the people.” Then, they began lobbing tear gas.

Later, TV broadcasts showed protesters throwing rocks down on police from a highway overpass near the square. Dozens of protesters were wounded in the street clashes or overcome by tear gas.

Large groups of protesters, in the thousands, gathered in at least six venues around Cairo. There were smaller protests in Assiut south of the capital and al-Arish in the Sinai peninsula. Regional TV stations were reporting clashes between thousands of demonstrators and police in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria and Minya south of Cairo.

Al Jazeera said at least one person was killed. The Qatar-based news channel also said that Ayman Nour, a contender in Egypt’s 2005 presidential race, was among the dozens wounded in Tahrir Square.

Friday’s demonstrations were energized by the return Thursday night of Nobel Peace laureate and leading pro-democracy advocate Mohamed ElBaradei, who said he was ready to lead the opposition toward regime change.

ElBaradei was among those hit by water cannons as he and his supporters joined the protests in Cairo. Police used batons to beat some of his supporters, who formed a barrier with their bodies in an effort to protect him.

Soaking wet, ElBaradei was trapped inside a mosque while hundreds of riot police laid siege to it, firing tear gas in the surrounding streets so no one could leave. The tear gas canisters set cars ablaze outside the mosque, and several people fainted and suffered burns.

At the upscale Mohandiseen district, at least 10,000 people were marching toward the city center chanting “down, down with Mubarak!” The crowd later swelled to about 20,000 as they made their way through residential areas.

The protesters also gained the backing of the country’s biggest opposition group, the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which called on its supporters to join the demonstrations.

Mubarak, 82, is Washington’s closest Arab ally. But the United States has signaled that the Egyptian president no longer enjoys its full backing, publicly counseling him to introduce reform and refrain from using violence against the protesters.

U.S. President Obama said Thursday that the anti-government protests filling Egypt’s streets show the frustrations of its citizens.

“It is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express their grievances,” Obama said.

Mubarak and his government have said they are ready for dialogue but have shown no hint of concessions to the protesters who want political reform and a solution to rampant poverty, unemployment and rising food prices.

In fact, Mubarak himself has been notably absent in recent days. “There has been no word of him,” Sarhaddi Nelson said.

She added that when the ruling National Democratic Party held a news conference on Thursday, “it was the secretary-general — one of the officials of the party — and not the president who spoke.”

This report also contains material from The Associated Press. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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