CAIRO (Reuters) - Police fought protesters in two Egyptian cities on Thursday and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei returned to the country on the eve of nationwide demonstrations seeking to oust President Hosni Mubarak.
Security forces shot dead a Bedouin protester in the north of Egypt’s Sinai region on Thursday, bringing the death toll to five on the third day of protests inspired by unrest which toppled Tunisia’s president earlier this month.
Demonstrators appeared determined to allow no let-up in mass rallies against Mubarak’s three-decade rule, with another wave of protests expected after Friday prayers.
In a sign of open defiance against authoritarian rulers spreading in the region, police also clashed with protesters in the Arabian Peninsula state of Yemen and Gabon in West Africa.
In the Egyptian city of Suez, police fired rubber bullets, water cannon and tear gas at hundreds of demonstrators calling for an end to Mubarak’s rule. Protesters chucked rocks and petrol bombs at police lines.
Hundreds of demonstrators remained on the streets of Suez late into Thursday night. Smoke from fires lit on the roads filled the air while tear gas hung in the air in some areas of the city, forcing people to cover their mouths with tissues.
As in many other countries in the region, protesters in Egypt complain about surging prices, unemployment and the authorities’ reliance on heavy-handed security to keep dissenting voices quiet.
In Ismailia, hundreds of protesters clashed with police who dispersed the crowds with tear gas.
In Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, Bedouin tribesmen fired rocket propelled grenades at a police station on Thursday evening, a security source and witnesses said. One hit the building.
Police were surrounding the area, so it was not immediately clear whether the police station was damaged.
Support spread for a planned wave of protests on Friday, initiated on the Facebook social networking website.
“I will participate,” ElBaradei, 68, who has campaigned for reform in Egypt, said on flying in from his home in Vienna, where he used to lead the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog. “I wish we did not have to go out on the streets to press the regime to act,” said the Egyptian.
The United States, which views Mubarak as a vital ally and bulwark of Middle Eastern peace, has called for calm and urged Egypt to make reforms to meet the protesters’ demands. It also fears that Islamic radicals could exploit continuing anger.
In his first comments on the unrest, President Barack Obama said political reforms were “absolutely critical” in Egypt, adding however that Mubarak had been “very helpful on a range of tough issues in the Middle East.”
“But I’ve always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on reform — political reform, economic reform — is absolutely critical to the long-term well-being of Egypt,” Obama said in an interview with the YouTube website.
“You can see these pent-up frustrations that are being displayed on the streets.”
On Thursday, Egyptians torched a police post in Suez in response to the killing of three demonstrators earlier in the week, a Reuters witness said.
“Our government is a dictatorship. A total dictatorship,” said Mohamed Fahim, a 29-year-old glass factory worker, as he stood near the charred skeleton of a car. “It’s our right to choose our government ourselves. We have been living 29 years, my whole life, without being able to choose a president.”
On Wednesday evening, people in Suez had tried to burn down a government building, another police post and a local office of Egypt’s ruling party before police stopped them. The government has said it intervened there against what it called vandalism.
One policeman has been killed in Cairo in the protests, unprecedented during Mubarak’s rule.
Speaking earlier to Reuters in Vienna, ElBaradei said that it was time for Mubarak to step aside. “He has served the country for 30 years and it is about time for him to retire,” said ElBaradei, who won the peace prize for his work at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
His arrival could spur protesters who have no figurehead, although many activists resent his absences abroad in recent months.
Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif urged citizens to exercise self control on Friday, the cabinet spokesman told reporters.
A Facebook page announcing Friday’s protest gained 55,000 supporters in less than 24 hours and the call was then repeated by some opposition groups.
“Egypt’s Muslims and Christians will go out to fight against corruption, unemployment and oppression and absence of freedom,” wrote an activist on Facebook, which alongside sites such as Twitter have been key tools to rally people onto the streets.
Egypt’s main stock index suffered the second-biggest one-day fall in its history on Thursday and the prices of two London-listed stocks focussed on Egypt also tumbled.
Interior Minister Habib al-Adli, whose resignation is being demanded by the protesters, has dismissed the demonstrations.
“Egypt’s system is not marginal or frail. We are a big state, with an administration with popular support. The millions will decide the future of this nation, not demonstrations even if numbered in the thousands,” he said.
“Our country is stable and not shaken by such actions,” he told Kuwait’s al-Rai newspaper, according to the newspaper’s website.
Witnesses say demonstrators have been dragged away, beaten and shoved into police vans. The Interior Ministry said on Wednesday that 500 had been arrested. An independent coalition of lawyers said at least 1,200 were detained.
ElBaradei launched a campaign for change last year, raising hopes his international stature could galvanise the opposition. But many activists have since complained that he should have spent more time on the street than abroad.
Web activists seem to have acted largely independently of more organised opposition movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, widely seen as having Egypt’s biggest grassroots network with its social and charity projects.
A presidential election is due in September. Egyptians assume that the 82-year-old Mubarak plans either to remain in control or hand power to his son Gamal, 47. Father and son both deny that Gamal is being groomed for the job.
Egyptian officials separately denied on Thursday a report that Gamal had fled Egypt.
Egypt is home to about 80 million, two thirds of them under 30 and accounting for 90 percent of the jobless. About 40 percent live on less than $2 a day, and a third are illiterate.
Additional reporting by Shaimaa Fayed and Marwa Awad in Cairo, Alexander Dziadosz in Suez and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Jeff Mason in Washington; writing by Edmund Blair, Philippa Fletcher and Maria Golovnina; editing by David Stamp