CAIRO — Clashes erupted again Wednesday in downtown Cairo, where riot police had used rubber bullets and water cannons overnight to disperse a huge anti-government demonstration. Hundreds of protesters defied a government order and gathered in Cairo and other cities, vowing to topple the U.S.-backed authoritarian Egyptian regime even as momentum appears to have dissipated since the first wave of demonstrations.
The Egyptian stock market plunged Wednesday as investors reacted to rumors of an impending revolution.
Skirmishes between protesters and security forces broke out at two small gatherings — in front of the lawyers' and journalists' union offices — but columns of riot policemen prevented crowds of more than a few hundred from amassing anywhere downtown. One chant that rose from a group of protesters posed the question of the hour: "1, 2, Egyptians, where are you?"
The modest turnout, just a day after demonstrations of a size unseen since the 1977 bread riots, raised serious doubts as to whether Egyptians will seize the moment and demand a new government. Large-scale protests planned for after midday prayers Friday will be a key test of the opposition's ability to turn widespread frustration into real street power.
The Interior Ministry on Wednesday banned further demonstrations and warned that violators would be prosecuted. It said one riot policeman was killed after he was hit in the head with a stone, and more than 100 policemen and forces were injured, including an officer in critical condition.
In Egypt, a reliable U.S. ally and the most populous Arab nation, people seethe over high unemployment, rising prices for basic goods and the probability that 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak will bequeath his office to his son Gamal. Mubarak has never named a vice president and he keeps his country under perpetual emergency law, giving authorities broad powers to jail anyone without charges.
Washington has mostly turned a blind eye to such excesses and continues to give the government nearly $2 billion a year in aid, fueling anti-American militancy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday described Egypt's government as stable and urged restraint on all sides.
"Mubarak won't go. The government is still very strong here," said Hamada Hussein, 24, who earned a business degree from a prestigious Egyptian university but works in a coffee shop. He said his situation was emblematic of the social ills unaddressed by the government.
"Young people can't find jobs and prices are so high. And even when you pay the high price, nothing is of good quality," he said.
After a popular uprising in Tunisia last month ousted that nation's iron-fisted regime, Egyptian opposition leaders sought to mobilize the masses to follow suit. Egypt, however, has an exponentially higher population and an opposition fragmented by religious, political and class differences.
Views are mixed among analysts here. Some think those obstacles can be overcome and the regime forced out, while others counter that the Egyptian people are too demoralized and the administration too entrenched.
Nabil Abdelfattah, deputy director of Cairo's Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the most likely outcome would be "limited changes, such as providing some jobs, speeding up trials in some of the corruption cases, maybe some partial constitutional changes concerning the presidential election."
However, Abdelfattah cautioned, "these superficial and partial reforms will not have an effect on the angry young generation, which I predict will continue to demonstrate and demand more reforms." He said social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter would continue to play a major role in organizing opposition.
The government has blocked Twitter as well as the websites of some opposition newspapers. Egyptians texted one another tips on circumventing the filters, however, and Tweets from throughout the country flowed Wednesday with little interruption.
However, the online enthusiasm didn't spill into the streets. Or, as one Twitter user put it: "I see riot police but no riot." The scene in downtown Cairo was far different from the one a few hours earlier, when the authorities blasted protesters with water cannons, pelted them with rubber bullets and sprayed them with tear gas. At least three protesters were killed in the canal city of Suez, according to news reports.
Skepticism could be found even among the Egyptians who did show up Wednesday to chant against the government.
"Nothing will change. The government isn't only Hosni Mubarak. He has a whole system behind him," said Mona Abdel Nasser, 24, who's nine months pregnant and has scouted a hospital near a downtown protest site in case she goes into labor.
So why did she join the calls for "liberty and social justice" if there's no possibility of reforms?
"These aren't just our problems," said Hind Abdel Nasser, 22, Mona's sister. She pointed to Mona's belly and said, "Her son is going to inherit these problems if we don't speak up."
(Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent.) MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
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