Riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets today fought running battles across Egypt with tens of thousands of protesters who flooded out of weekly prayers seeking to oust President Hosni Mubarak.
As Egypt’s biggest anti-government protests in three decades escalated, police struggled to contain the anger, with protesters running rampant through the capital and torching two police stations, witnesses said.
In the canal city of Suez, protesters overran a police station, seized weapons and torched security force vehicles in fierce clashes during which a protester was killed, witnesses said.
But in a hint that authorities might heed public anger, a senior lawmaker and member of the ruling party called for “unprecedented reforms” in order to stave off a revolution.
Police were deployed in strength around the most populous Arab nation that has been rocked by protests since Tuesday, with eight people killed, hundreds injured and some 1,000 arrested.
They fired warning shots and used water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets in a bid to quash the rising tide of popular anger.
As the violence raged, Mustafa al-Fekki, National Democratic Party (NDP) member and chairman of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said security forces alone could not prevent revolution in Egypt, that reform was necessary.
“Nowhere in the world can the security forces put an end to revolution,” he said in remarks to Al-Jazeera television.
“The security option alone is not sufficient, and the president is the only one to put an end to these events,” he added, calling for “unprecedented reform.”
US President Barack Obama said on Thursday that “violence is not the answer in solving these problems in Egypt” and that it was “absolutely critical” for Mubarak to move towards political reform.
Egypt is one of Washington’s closest allies in the region, but analysts say the United States is growing increasingly concerned that its refusal to implement more political reforms could lead to further unrest and instability.
That was reflected on Friday when Fitch ratings agency said it had revised its ratings outlook for Egypt to negative over increased political and economic uncertainty.
“A continuation or intensification of significant unrest that seriously threatened economic and financial performance and the economic reform process would lead to a rating downgrade,” Fitch said.
“By contrast, an effective government response that eased political tensions up to and beyond September’s (presidential) elections and allowed economic reforms to continue, would mean the rating outlook would return to stable.”
The Cairo bourse was closed for the weekend, after having plunged 10 per cent this week.
Mubarak, aged 82 and said to be in poor health, has not been seen publicly since the unrest erupted. However, the culture ministry has said he is to make an appearance on Saturday at the opening of the annual Cairo book fair. Demonstrations spread around the capital of Cairo, where police appeared overwhelmed as protesters broke through several police barriers.
Protesters were seen being dragged away and pushed into police vans, as others defied the heavy police presence and made their way to the central Tahrir Square.
Leading dissident Mohamed ElBaradei, who has said he would be prepared to lead a transitional authority if he were asked, was among a crowd of around 2,000 targeted by police and was forced to take refuge inside a mosque in Giza Square.
Threw stones at police
In Alexandria, protesters threw stones at police after prayers with cries of “God is greatest” followed by “We don’t want him,” referring to Mubarak.
Police responded with tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets
The crowd attacked police vans, torching one, after a civilian had most of his hand blown away, allegedly by police.
Protesters also set fire to the governorate building in the city centre.
In the Delta city of Mansura, hundreds chanted “Down with Mubarak” as they emerged from prayers, heavily outnumbered by security forces.
Some imams had encouraged worshippers to “go out and seek change,” an AFP correspondent reported.
In another Delta city, Damietta, tens of thousands protested and set fire to the NDP headquarters, witnesses said.
In the run-up to Friday’s mobilisations, authorities cut most mobile phone and Internet services, but a founder of the April 6 movement spearheading demonstrations said it was too late to staunch the anger.
“We’ve already announced the meeting places,” Israa Abd el-Fatah told AFP after connections were cut. “So we’ve done it; we no longer need means of communication.”
James Cowie of Renesys, a New Hampshire-based firm that monitors Internet routing data in real-time, said on Friday that “virtually all of Egypt’s Internet addresses are now unreachable, worldwide.”
Egypt’s largest opposition group, the banned Muslim Brotherhood, has also joined the uprising. (AFP)