Thousands flood into Cairo square for protest rally

Police with batons fire tear gas and water cannon as crowd of mostly under-30s throw rocks and chant anti-Mubarak slogans.

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CAIRO //Thousands of protesters flooded into the Egyptian capital's main square yesterday, braving water cannons and tear gas to demand a change in government.

The demonstration, described by observers as the largest the capital has seen in years, was inspired by the ousting of Tunisia's president and partly organised through a Facebook page commemorating a young Egyptian who was allegedly beaten to death by police last June in Alexandria. Twitter was blocked and mobile phone service in the city centre restricted, hampering organisers' ability to co-ordinate the protest.

After a day of smaller, more peaceful marches across the city, the situation turned violent in the late afternoon as protesters converged on Tahrir Square. Police fired about a dozen tear-gas canisters and sprayed fire hoses deep into the crowd, while demonstrators tore up rocks from adjacent flower beds and hurled them into the police lines. Policemen threw the stones right back at them.

Protesters were quick to claim the event as a watershed moment in Egypt's history that had the potential to topple the government. After this month's events in Tunis, demonstrators saw a real possibility of forcing the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, from power, said Mohammed Said, 30, who has been active in the protest movement for 10 years.

"If we keep up like this for two or three days everything will be OK and Mubarak will go to Saudi [Arabia] as well," he said. Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the former Tunisian president, fled to Saudi Arabia after resigning his post.

"When I was a student 10 years ago, there were maybe 1,000 people at demonstrations. Now look at this," Mr Said said.

Many older demonstrators and analysts were much more cautious, arguing it would take more than a large protest to dislodge Mr Mubarak, who has held tight control of the Arab world's most populous country for 29 years.

Neither the event organisers nor police offered a count of demonstrators by press time, but the group of protesters filled about half of Cairo's mammoth Tahrir square, which is only a block from the country's two houses of parliament. Protesters were ringed by hundreds of police with batons and riot shields. They were backed up by armoured cars outfitted with water cannons and tear-gas canister launchers.

At one point, a young man climbed up onto a large billboard erected by the ruling National Democratic Party in the middle of the square, and spray-painted "Down with Hosni Mubarak" on the back.

The protesters, the majority of whom appeared under 30 years old, had lost their fear of the police, said Mina Daniel, 24, whose eyes and face were reddened from the clouds of tear gas.

"This is evidence that people want to revolt, because they didn't just surrender and go back into their homes," he said. "Egyptians by nature are very patient and endure a lot of burdens, but they're here because of the accumulation of humiliation, torture and stupidity.

"Any revolution starts with such small things."

One woman cradled two infants in her arms as she chanted along with the protesters, while a dozen older men knelt and prayed in the grass in the middle of the square amid the mayhem. Demonstrators chanted "Illegitimate, Illegitimate" and "Hosni Mubarak you are a coward. You are an agent of the Americans".

The demonstration took place on Police Day, a national holiday commemorating an event on January 25, 1952 when police in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia took up arms against the British occupation force. By late afternoon, protests also spread to other parts of Egypt including several cities in the Nile Delta and Alexandria, where police reportedly fired rubber bullets at demonstrators. Organisers also called for protests at Egyptian embassies in Paris, Toronto, Bologna, Sydney, London and Tunis.

In Kuwait, police arrested three Egyptians for attempting to organise their own protest against the Egyptian government, according to Al Anba, the Kuwaiti newspaper. The three were arrested for attempting to "incite the organisation of protests" and distributing leaflets without government authorisation, Al Anba reported.