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Energized by Tunisia, Egypt protesters surge onto streets in 'Day of Wrath'

Democracy protesters in Egypt took to the streets in Cairo and at least six other cities, calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

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During the day, police in Cairo used tear gas and what appeared to be concussion grenades, and battled protesters with sticks and batons. But they allowed the demonstrators to gather and march, showing a rare restraint likely engendered by the situation in Tunisia, where violent police crackdowns on demonstrations energized opposition, leading to a month of sustained protests that eventually pushed the president from power.

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“Egyptians have a right to express themselves,” said Egypt’s foreign ministry spokesman, Hossam Zaki, in a statement. The Ministry of Interior released a statement saying it exercised restraint and was “committed to securing and not confronting these gatherings.”

Organizing themselves on a Facebook group that attracted more than 90,000 followers, the protesters in Cairo met at various points in the city, then converged on the central square, where the atmosphere was electric. A statement from the Ministry of Information put the numbers downtown at 10,000.

“Down with Mubarak!” they yelled, then said “Down with Gamal!” referring to Mubarak’s son, who is seen as being groomed to succeed his father. They urged Mubarak to join Ben Ali in Saudi Arabia, and yelled “Freedom! Freedom!”

The crowds skirmished with police at times, surging toward the cordon ringing the square, at one time pushing police far back down the road that leads toward the Parliament building, before police regrouped. Some captured the bamboo sticks and riot shields and helmets of police, taking photos with the souvenirs. When police shot tear gas, some young men stood defiantly among the wafting clouds in the street, raising their hands as if daring the police to do more. Police picked up the rocks protesters had hurled at them and threw them at the crowds.

Not just activists

Egypt’s opposition parties have long struggled to attract a cross-section of society to participate in either politics or demonstrations. Tuesday’s protest succeeded where they had failed. Though many of the protesters were young and middle class, they drew from every sector of society. A woman wearing the head scarf typical of low-income neighborhoods shouted slogans next to a middle-aged woman in expensive jewelry and chic clothes – now spattered in mud from the water cannons police aimed at protesters. There was a man in a suit and carrying a briefcase, men in traditional robes, and a retiree wearing a tweed jacket. Some even brought their children.

“I want to teach my son how to attain his rights, how to fight for his freedom,” said Nagi Bashad as he marched with his young son. “I want him to have a better future. If we all participate like in Tunis, we can achieve a revolution.”

One protester held aloft a sign that said “In the beginning, Tunis. And now, Egypt.” Egyptians Tuesday said over and over again that Tunisia’s uprising had given them hope. “What happened in Tunis made me more motivated,” said one woman who didn’t want to give her name. “I have hope now, when before I had only a little. I want Mubarak to leave as Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali left. What happened here is enough – I’m talking about corruption, dictatorship. We need freedom.”

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