CAIRO — 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 amounted to the biggest challenge ever to authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year regime.
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.
“I can’t believe our own police, our own government would keep beating up on us like this,” said Cairo protester Ahmad Salah, 26. “I’ve been here for hours and gassed and keep going forward, and they keep gassing us, and I will keep going forward. This is a cowardly government and it has to fall. We’re going to make sure of it.”
After nightfall, some of the protesters defied the curfew and were praying on the streets of Cairo. In one of many astonishing scenes Friday, thousands of anti-government protesters wielding rocks, glass and sticks chased hundreds of riot police away from the main square in downtown Cairo and several of the policemen stripped off their uniforms and badges and joined the demonstrators.
An Associated Press reporter saw the protesters cheering the police who joined them and hoisting them on their shoulders in one of the many dramatic and chaotic scenes across Egypt on Friday.
After chasing the police, thousands of protesters were able to flood into the huge Tahrir Square downtown after being kept out most of the day by a very heavy police presence. Few police could be seen around the square after the confrontation.
The Obama administration on Friday called Egypt’s crackdown on protesters a “deep concern” and urged Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful demonstrations and restore Internet traffic and social networking sites.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley urged Egypt, one of America’s closest Arab allies, to enact reforms. He said Egypt must respect the “fundamental rights” of its people, allow them to communicate, and avoid violence if the country is to thrive.
At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs used Twitter to echo the concern — and say authorities should “turn on social networking and (the) Internet.” The Internet was blocked in Egypt Friday as protests spread.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak imposed a night curfew and signaled he would send the military into the streets for the first time to quell swelling protests that pose an unprecedented challenge to his regime.
“Reform is vital to Egypt’s long-term well-being,” Crowley said. “The Egyptian government should view its people as a partner and not as a threat.” Crowley’s comments were posted on Twitter. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was expected to address the unfolding developments later Friday.
The White House said President Barack Obama had several meetings with aides Friday about the situation in Egypt and related demonstrations and unrest in other Arab nations.
“Events unfolding in Egypt are of deep concern,” Crowley said. “Fundamental rights must be respected, violence avoided and open communications allowed.”