Human rights group says torture is widespread in prisons and detention centres.
Two civilians and a police officer have died after a wave of unusually large anti-government demonstrations swept across Egypt, calling for the ouster of longtime president Hosni Mubarak.
In central Cairo, crowds numbering in the thousands protested and clashed with police throughout the day. Shortly after midnight on Wednesday morning, security forces violently dispersed those who remained in Tahrir Square, the heart of the city, Al Jazeera’s Adam Makary reported.
Security officers fired tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to drive the protesters from the square, where they had chosen to remain throughout the night in protest. An Al Jazeera cameraman was shot with rubber bullets several times, including once in the face, Makary said.
Telephone communication with people in central Cairo was nearly impossible, but Makary reported that the crowds, which had been peaceful, had been forced to escape the police, who fired dozens of tear gas canisters.
The protests in Cairo were reportedly the largest in the country on Tuesday, a date chosen by activists to emulate the recent uprising in nearby Tunisia.
But demonstrations occurred throughout Egypt.
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Two civilians died in the eastern city of Suez, according to an interior ministry offical. One, who had respiratory problems, died after inhaling tear gas; the other died after being hit with a rock thrown during a protest, the official said.
In Cairo, a police officer died after being hit in the head with a rock during earlier protests in Tahrir Square, the official said.
The demonstrations were reportedly the largest in years, rivaling those held against the Iraq War in 2003 and in favor of free elections and civil society reforms in 2005.
On Tuesday night, hours after the countrywide protests began, the interior ministry issued a statement blaming the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s technically banned but largest opposition party, for fomenting the unrest.
But the Brotherhood denied the accusation and had earlier stated its intention to stay out of the protest; indeed, some observers noted the lack of Brotherhood mobilization on Tuesday.
Inspired by events in Tunisia, thousands of protesters gathered in Cairo and elsewhere, calling for reforms and demanding an end to Mubarak’s presidency, which has now lasted for nearly three decades.
The scale of the demonstrations prompted US secretary of state Hillary Clinton to assert during a press conference that “Egypt’s government is stable.”
Water cannons and tear gas
Some protesters in Cairo hurled rocks and climbed atop an armoured police truck.
Police responded to the demonstrators with blasts from a water cannon and set upon crowds with batons and acrid clouds of tear gas.
Amateur video posted on YouTube showed crowds of Egyptians pushing against and breaking through police cordons.
Police have also used rubber bullets against protesters, resulting in some injuries, reported Rawya Rageh, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Cairo.
Clinton urged all sides in Egypt to exercise restraint following the street protests, saying she believed the government was looking for ways to respond to its populations concerns.
But at least 30 people are already reported to have been arrested in Cairo, official sources said.
Protests also broke out in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, the Nile Delta cities of Mansura and Tanta, and in the southern cities of Aswan and Assiut, witnesses reported.
The rallies had been promoted online by groups saying they speak for young Egyptians frustrated by the kind of poverty and oppression which triggered the overthrow of Tunisia’s president. More than 80,000 people signed a Facebook group saying they would participate in the protests.
Egyptian blogger Hossam El Hamalawy told Al Jazeera that new media had been important in facilitating “the domino effect” needed for demonstrations like this one to progress, but he noted that it was the people in the street making the difference.
“We want a functioning government, we want Mubarak to step down, we don’t want emergency law, we don’t want to live under this kind of oppression anymore,” Mamdouh Khayrat, a 23-year-old man who travelled from the governorate of Qalubiya to attend the protests, told Al Jazeera’s Makary in Cairo.
“Enough is enough, things have to change and if Tunisia can do it, why can’t we?”
El Hamalawy told Al Jazeera the protests were necessary “to send a message to the Egyptian regime that Mubarak is no different than Ben Ali and we want him to leave too.”
Black-clad riot police, backed by armoured vehicles and fire engines, were deployed in a massive security operation in Cairo. They were said to concentrate on a few likely flashpoints, including the Cairo University campus, Tahrir Square, and a main courthouse.
Coinciding with a national holiday in honour of the police, a key force in keeping president Mubarak in power for 30 years, the outcome in Egypt on Tuesday was seen as a test of whether vibrant web activism can translate into street action.
“Activists said they wanted to use this particular day to highlight the irony of celebrating Egypt’s police at a time when police brutality is making headlines,” Al Jazeera’s Rageh reported.
‘Beginning of the end’
The Egyptian government had earlier warned potential protesters.
“The security apparatus will deal firmly and decisively with any attempt to break the law,” the government’s director for security in Cairo said in a statement released ahead of the protests.
Since Egypt bans demonstrations without prior permission, and opposition groups say they have been denied such permits, any protesters may be detained.
Habib el-Adli, the interior minister, had earlier issued orders to “arrest any persons expressing their views illegally.”
Activists have been relying heavily on social networks to organise the protests.
“Our protest on the 25th is the beginning of the end,” the organisers of the Facebook protest group wrote.
“People are fed up of Mubarak and of his dictatorship and of his torture chambers and of his failed economic policies. If Mubarak is not overthrown tomorrow then it will be the day after. If its not the day after its going to be next week,” El Hamalawy told Al Jazeera.
Protests in Egypt, the biggest Arab state and a keystone Western ally in the Middle East, tend to be poorly attended and are often quashed swiftly by the police, who prevent marching.