by Guillaume Lavallee
CAIRO, January 28, 2011 (AFP) – “The people want the fall of the regime,” thousands of angry Egyptians chanted on Friday as they flooded out of mosques and into Cairo’s streets to join mass protests hounded by riot police in black.
The end of the weekly Friday prayers sounded like the starting gun in a race against the regime, with thousands of people surging through the streets and calling for an end to Hosni Mubarak’s regime, as onlookers cheered them on.
“Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” cried demonstrators, mainly men, who had gathered on al-Azhar Street near Cairo’s landmark mosque of the same name, in the historical neighbourhood of Khan al-Khalili.
Their chants were made under the hostile gaze of helmeted riot police.
“Mubarak is a dictator,” said Ahmed, a young lawyer marching with the demonstrators. “We want him overthrown. The time for reforms has passed. The people have had enough. The economic situation is untenable.”
Police had blocked the roads and the highway overpasses that cut across the heart of the Egyptian capital. The streets were thronged with a mix of young and old, secular and Islamist demonstrators.
“We are gathered here, the national forces and the Muslim Brotherhood, to tell the government we have had enough,” said Mohammed al-Mansour, a man in his thirties wearing a cashmere coat against the cold wind.
Demonstrators played cat and mouse with police who seemed to be on the verge of intervening, prompting brief moments of panic in the crowds.
The protests merged on city centre highways where shops remained shut.
“We have closed our businesses. We’re afraid the situation will slip out of control,” said Hamzawi, a fabrics merchant in the Khan al-Khalili souk.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the driving force of the Egyptian opposition, and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the most visible member of the opposition, joined this “Friday of anger,” the climax of four days of protests.
Eight Egyptians have been killed in countrywide anti-government rallies, which also left more than hundreds injured and thousands behind bars.
“We took to the streets after leaving the Mustafa Mahmud mosque (in the Mohandessin neighbourhood) and came here” to the Dokki area, said Akram Ismail, a young demonstrator.
“Police let us march up to this point but then threw tear gas at us,” he added.
Demonstrators, their faces still wet with tears because of the clouds of billowing gas, sat on the kerbs Dokki’s streets, where the police appeared to have lost control of the situation.
Other protesters were furious that tear gas being used against them appeared to have been US-manufactured, probably part of a massive military aid package.
“The American taxpayer should know how their money is being spent,” shouted one young protester who declined to give his name, brandishing a spent tear gas canister marked “Made in USA.”
Later, after a night-time curfew was imposed and the army deployed on the streets, some soldiers were seen flashing “V for victory” signs near Opera Square in downtown Cairo to defiant demonstrators who applauded.
Protesters climbed onto tanks alongside soldiers and police were seen shaking hands with demonstrators, an AFP journalist said.
“We don’t know what side the army is on, if they are with us. But it’s true that we all respect the army,” said one demonstrator out on the streets of Dokki with thousands of others two hours after the start of the curfew.
The streets were plastered with anti-government graffiti.
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