Egypt shuts down Internet, rounds up opposition leaders as protests start

By , Staff writer

President Barack Obama may have called for Egypt to avoid violence and to allow freedom of speech and assembly ahead of protests scheduled against President Hosni Mubarak today, but early signs are the regime is using most means at its disposal to crush a swelling and stunning wave of dissent in the Arab world's largest country.

Overnight in Egypt, the government shut down the vast majority of Egypt's Internet service, only allowing a network used by the stock exchange and most banks to stay live. Text message services were shut down in an effort to disrupt protest organization and all cell phone service was ordered shut in select locations according to Vodafone, one of Egypt's two main cellphone companies. There were reports of hundreds of activists detained by the police.

Our correspondent Kristen Chick made her way through billowing clouds of tear gas and thousands of protesters to a Cairo landline to phone in a report this morning on what she's seeing. She says the protesters, many of whom are participating in a demonstration for the first time, are calling for the downfall of the regime and refuse to be beaten back. You can read it here:

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Reporters in Cairo said waves of baltageya, plain-clothes thugs allied with state security, were unleashed on the streets. CNN's Ben Wedeman reported on his twitter feed watching a car load of baseball bats being brought into the grounds of the government TV building (some people are still getting internet access via cellphones registered in foreign countries).

There were tens of thousands of protesters, at least, on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city. Al Jazeera reported that democracy figurehead and Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei was detained by police, but Al Arabiya was reporting that he and supporters in Cairo were simply penned in by riot police near the mosque in Cairo where they had attended noon prayers.

Egyptians pushing for regime change and democracy in Egypt have won this round, simply by making good on their promise of the largest protest against the government since three days of bread riots in 1977. The government was apparently hoping that shutting down internet and phone communications would head off the protests, but the blood and sinew of thousands poured out of the mosques anyways.

Today's protests also include the formal involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best organized opposition group, who had sat out the first round of protests earlier this week.

“Two, three days ago I didn’t think the Brotherhood would join the protests because they thought it would be business as usual,” says Josh Stacher, a political scientist at Kent State who studies Egypt. “But I think the Brothers realize it’s on now. They sense they’ve got a legit chance of chasing Mubarak out of the country.”

To be sure, the regime has enormous resources at its disposal.

"I think we have to be a little bit cautious, repression does sometimes work, and we saw that in Iran with the Green Movement... if a regime is determined there's a lot they can do to destroy the opposition," Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Centre told Al Jazeera English shortly after 7 AM EST. "This is beyond historic.. even if a revolution doesn't happen, even if there's no structural change in the regime... the legitimacy of the regime is completely gone. It's not a question of if, but when."

What's happening is still very fluid, reporting scattered and disrupted. But events today are shaping up to be larger and potentially more shattering to the Mubarak regime than Jan. 25 protests, that were themselves unprecedented. Judging by footage carried on Arab satellite television networks, tear gas and baton charges are only serving to enrage the protesters.

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