CAIRO, Egypt—Egyptian security forces beat unarmed activists and journalists Thursday as demonstrations sprang up throughout downtown Cairo in support of two judges who face disciplinary measures for exposing alleged fraud in last year's parliamentary elections.
The clashes were among the largest and most violent since Egyptian judges launched a movement seeking greater independence from the authoritarian government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled this nation for 25 years.
Under Mubarak, Egypt, the most populous Arab country, has become one of the region's most dependable U.S. allies. It's the second-largest recipient of American foreign aid, after Israel.
But the country has experienced growing turmoil in recent months as groups opposed to Mubarak's rule, emboldened by Bush administration calls for greater democracy in the Arab world, have become more vocal. Mubarak, who had allowed the reopening of opposition newspapers and, last year, the first contested presidential elections, has begun to push back, arresting opposition politicians and canceling local elections that were to have been held this spring.
In at least four protests Thursday, plainclothes security forces flanked by thousands of riot police beat back demonstrators who chanted, "Judges, judges, save us from the tyrants!" Security forces wielding batons and fists struck demonstrators, pummeling many until they collapsed onto the street. Some activists were dragged out of sight into alleyways and others were beaten in public and carted away in police vans.
Television footage of the violence shows riot police carrying off protesters who appear to be unconscious.
There was no definitive word on casualties. At least six riot police were killed and several others injured when a van carrying them to the protests drove off a bridge in Cairo, authorities said.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the banned Islamist group that has emerged as Egypt's leading opposition force, estimated that 300 activists were seized. Egypt's Interior Ministry didn't release arrest figures.
When asked about the use of force against unarmed demonstrators, Col. Ashraf Galal of the Interior Ministry snapped: "Don't ask me questions like that. When we have a release, we'll send it out."
Several journalists who tried to photograph or report on the violence also were struck, and police smashed or confiscated cameras. Six journalists were detained briefly, including a cameraman for the al-Jazeera satellite channel who was badly injured and had his equipment confiscated.
An Egyptian correspondent for Knight Ridder was trampled and manhandled by plainclothes security forces as she watched police beat several protesters. Riot police also attacked a second Knight Ridder correspondent, an American. Uniformed police groped her and attempted to tear her clothing as they tried to seize a notebook and camera. She escaped unharmed by climbing over a car with the assistance of passers-by and other journalists.
Munir Ahmed, a 55-year-old tour guide who wasn't part of the demonstrations, took cover from the violence under the awning of a clothing store. He watched with sadness as passers-by helped an elderly woman to her feet after she was crushed by crowds of people running from the authorities. Angry Egyptians cursed the brutality of the police.
"This is the first step in pushing them toward extremism and terrorism," Ahmed said. "And yet the Americans keep sending money to this government."
Thursday's chaos was the second time that police have besieged demonstrators protesting the disciplinary hearings against two prominent judges, Mahmoud Mekky and Hesham Bastawisi, who are accused of violating Egypt's judicial code by giving television interviews in which they said government-backed judges helped rig last year's elections.
When the judges' case was first to be considered last month, police broke up similar demonstrations that paralyzed downtown Cairo. That hearing was postponed until Thursday.
But the judges said they refused to attend Thursday's hearing after authorities banned their allies in the judiciary from entering the court. The proceedings were adjourned for a week.
"If the highest authority, the judges, are treated like that, what happens to the ordinary, suffering people?" asked Abdelmoty Ragab, 22, a university student at one of the marches.
Egyptian authorities anticipated a public outcry over the hearing and had sealed off several downtown Cairo streets leading to the courthouse. Prevented from staging a single large gathering, activists instead organized smaller protests along side streets, which were filled with columns of black-clad riot police carrying shields and truncheons.
The largest gathering included several hundred members of the Muslim Brotherhood. That protest ended with two senior Brotherhood figures in custody and several other members beaten and detained, according to witnesses. Security forces also harassed secular and leftist opposition members.
"The government has triggered animosity with every faction of society, the latest being the judges," said Mohamed Habib, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. "This adds to the complexity and tension of the situation. The system wants to silence opposing voices and restrict political activity. ... This violence is harming the image of Egypt and harming its place in the international community."
More than 100 pro-reform activists, including a popular Egyptian Internet blogger, have been detained in the past two weeks in connection with supporting the judges and calling for the repeal of Egypt's emergency law, which has been in place since 1981, according to a news release from Human Rights Watch.
(Special correspondent Miret el-Naggar contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): EGYPT-PROTESTS
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