Protesters, Police Clash In Egypt After Friday Prayers

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In Egypt, thousands of anti-government protesters clashed with police in Cairo. It was a major escalation in what was already the biggest challenge to President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's get the latest now from Egypt. Here's what we knew heading into this morning. Protests have been building all week against President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. More protests were planned in Cairo today, Friday, the day of prayer. The Internet was cut off by the government overnight, and there was a massive police presence on the streets.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has been out among the crowds today. Soraya, what have you been seeing?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Well, the call to prayer - we went to one particular mosque, because obviously it takes place at many mosques across the city. And Mustafa Muhammad(ph) was listed as a place where this is a mosque in the middle of the downtown area, and it was listed as a place where many people would show up. And sure enough, about 1,000 people were there, even before the prayer has ended.

And there were even more riot policemen, however. They gathered around the mosque. The imam from the mosque was appealing for calm. It was saying that people have a right or he was saying, I should say, that people have a right to demonstrate peacefully and to express their views and that the police should not engage them, and he was also calling on the protesters to stay calm.

But and initially that's what seemed to happen. The cordon of security forces and riot police gave way to the thousands initially it looked like 1,000 or 2,000 people, which quickly became I mean as my best estimate I would say 10 to 20 thousand people, just on this particular march that I was in.

Everyone is heading to Tahrir Square. That's the place that's not far from the Interior Ministry, where everybody or which sort of served as a flashpoint on Tuesday, and this is where people are trying to get to today.

However, about an hour into the march the police basically blocked off the people. They're not letting them enter the square area. They started lobbing tear gas and using water cannons. And they were lobbing so much tear gas that it was just spread all over the neighborhood. You could not escape it.

And there were children in this march. They were crying. Women, old women. Men. People fainting on the streets. But they were staying determined to stay there. About a a group of about 1,000 seemed to stay in place for about an hour at the time I left them.

Some of them came running back to me to say that the police were starting to light fires, tires on fire, basically, to try and suggest that the protesters were getting violent. They were very upset, the protesters, saying we are peaceful but we are determined, we are not going to stop. And so this is where the things stand at the moment, Steve.

INSKEEP: You mentioned tear gas everywhere. Are you okay?

NELSON: I'm okay. I got I mean I got a fair amount of it, but I'm out of it now, so what's really interesting is there are a lot of people driving around I shouldn't say a lot but there are some people driving around on the streets, that when they see you sort of staggering about, looking like you've been hit by tear gas, they will stop, they will give you a ride. I just had a young man who says that he doesn't have the lungs for it, he can't really take tear gas, but he's driving around town with eggs that he's throwing at the police officers and giving rides to stranded people like myself, who are trying get back to a phone line so we can phone in what's happening.

INSKEEP: Soraya, I want to make sure we have as global a picture as we can of what's happening here. You were at one particular mosque. You mentioned that up to 10,000 people perhaps started moving toward Tahrir Square, which is the place where everyone's trying to converge. I suppose we can presume that there are other people who prayed at other mosques today who are also trying to get to that square. There could be many thousands of people around Cairo?

NELSON: Absolutely. They are out in force today. The problem, of course, is that there are no means of communications. We have no phone lines other than land lines. All cell phones are down. All capability to Tweet or Facebook, use Facebook, which is the way that the protesters have been communicating with each other, is all gone.

There is nothing today. There is no way to talk to each other. And so it's kind amazing that as many people are out as they are and that they're able to converge the way they do.

INSKEEP: You mentioned that the imam of the mosque where you attended was telling the police to please be calm. Do you have any broader sense of what religious authorities are saying in this situation in Cairo?

NELSON: I do not. But it's important to note that these imams are they work for the religious authority, they're directed by the government here. So the fact that he would be saying something, appealing for calm and telling protesters they have the right to speak peacefully, is quite telling.

INSKEEP: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Cairo, Egypt, bringing us the latest on protests there. And Soraya, we'll check in with you again. Thanks very much and be safe.

NELSON: Thank you, Steve. Thanks.

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