Egypt to face its first Tunisian-inspired protests

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CAIRO (AP) — Egyptians planned to mark a holiday honoring the much-feared police with protests on Tuesday, spreading the word through Twitter and Facebook, where 80,000 Egyptians have posted their support.

Inspired by the popular revolt in Tunisia, organizers have dubbed the protests planned for Cairo and Alexandria “the day of revolution against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment.”

The first ramifications of the Tunisia uprising surfaced last week in Egypt when several people set themselves on fire or attempted to do so outside parliament and the prime minister’s office. Their actions sought to copy a young Tunisian vegetable vendor whose self-immolation helped spark the protests that forced Tunisia’s authoritarian president to flee the country.

Nearly half of Egypt’s 80 million people live under or just above the poverty line set by the United Nations at $2 a day. Poor quality education, health care and high unemployment have left large numbers of Egyptians deprived of basic needs.

The government has played down self-immolation attempts, with Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif telling reporters on Monday that those who committed the act were driven by “personal issues.”

“The latest suicide attempts are individual incidents, related to specific conditions of those who attempt to commit it,” Egypt’s state run news agency MENA quoted Nazif as saying.

On Monday alone, police reported at least two self-immolation attempts in two provinces. In Cairo, a man in his 60s slashed his wrists in the middle of a small demonstration. None of the three died.

Not a single day passes in Egypt without more than one suicide attempt reported. A recent study by the Cabinet Center for Information and Decision Making, an official body, showed that around 100,000 Egyptians took their own lives or attempted to do so in 2010.

Soon after the Jan. 14 ouster of Tunisia’s longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, all eyes focused on Egypt, with observers wondering if the dramatic events in the North African nation could spur unrest against another entrenched Arab regime.

The Facebook page for Tuesday’s protests is structured like an invitation. The number of those who said they would participate and those who said they won’t have exceeded 80,000 each.

Some joked about the day, tagging it the “Koshari revolution,” a reference to a popular and cheap Egyptian dish of rice, lentils and pasta favored by middle-class and poor Egyptians.

The people’s fear of a heavy security crackdown makes it hard to predict the actual size of Tuesday’s protests. Emergency laws in place since 1981 outlaw demonstrations and the police have a track record of violently dealing with protesters.

Organizers on Facebook challenged people to stand up, saying, “We are not less than Tunisia.”

“On Jan. 25, we have to show the world that we are not a cowardly, submissive people,” organizers wrote on the Facebook page.

Ahmed Maher, one of the founders of an opposition youth movement and one of the organizers, said he expected the number to be well above previous protests of several hundreds or several thousands.

“Young people are very excited, and this time there will be much more than any other time,” Maher told The Associated Press. He said organizers spread 150,000 flyers promoting the protests across the country.

The call for protests was first initiated by “The Martyr” Facebook page, set up in the name of a young Egyptian man, Khaled Said, whose family and witnesses say was beaten to death by a pair of policemen in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria last year. His case has become a rallying point for the opposition.

Witnesses say the two plainclothes policemen dragged him from a cafe and beat him to death on the sidewalk. Two policemen are currently on trial in connection with his death.

Legal parties such as the liberal Wafd and Al-Ghad in addition to supporters of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood — Egypt’s best organized opposition group — workers, students, government employees and activists said they will join the rally.

Organizers listed instructions on the Facebook page, including: bring an Egyptian flag, leave any other banners that represent your religious or political affiliation at home.

“Today is for all Egyptians,” it declares.