Monday, January 5, 2009

Egyptian authorities clamp down on Gaza protests

Egyptian authorities clamp down on Gaza protests

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Demonstrators gathered across the Muslim world Friday in fresh protests against the Israeli offensive in Gaza, while Egyptian authorities again used force to silence protesters in Cairo.

Thousands of demonstrators, many waving Palestinian flags and chanting anti-Israeli slogans, marched in cities from Amman, Jordan, to Karachi, Pakistan - as well as in Malaysia, the West Bank and parts of Europe and Australia - following afternoon prayers on what's traditionally the Muslim day of rest.

The protests, the largest in several days, came after the militant Islamic group Hamas, which controls Gaza, called for "a day of wrath" in opposition to the Israeli bombardment. More than 400 Palestinians have been killed in seven days of airstrikes that Israel says are aimed at stopping Hamas from firing rockets into Israeli territory.

The airstrikes have fueled intense anger among Arabs, not just at the Israeli military and its chief patron, the United States, but also at Egypt, the only Arab nation that shares a border with Gaza. Egypt occupied Gaza from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war until Israel conquered it in 1967.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a U.S. ally who fears the rise of militant Islam in his country, has kept the Gaza border crossing in the town of Rafah sealed even as television images show bloodied Gazans being carted away from blast sites.

Egypt has allowed in scores of wounded Gazans to receive medical treatment, but officials have blocked journalists from entering Rafah, and many Egyptian convoys carrying aid to Gaza have been turned away.

Authorities blocked a protest called at Cairo's Al Fateh Mosque on Friday by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement that has ideological ties to Hamas and is a frequent government target. Authorities detained 40 Muslim Brotherhood members, according to Egyptian news reports, although smaller protests were allowed in Alexandria, El Arish and other towns.

Egypt has been a key mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but analysts say that its response to the fighting in Gaza has badly strained relations with Hamas, which accuses Mubarak of collaborating with Israel and of failing to invite the Syrian-based Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal, to Cairo for talks.

As other Muslim nations, chiefly Turkey, have taken a greater role in trying to broker a truce this week, some Hamas leaders have questioned whether Egypt can continue in its role as the main go-between.

A visit to Cairo by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni the day before the onslaught began fueled that perception. In the Middle East's swirling rumor mill, images of Livni and Mubarak shaking hands provided all the proof that Egyptian critics needed that Mubarak was warned of the Israeli military campaign and might even have signed off on it.

Egypt's response to Gaza has been "very depressing," said Mohammed Nahas, a 42-year-old Cairo sculptor, who called it the latest example of Mubarak's tightly controlled regime prioritizing security concerns above all else.

"We're not being asked to fight, but at least let's be fair," Nahas said. "Europeans and even progressive Jews have sent humanitarian supplies to Gaza, and we as Muslims and Arab neighbors haven't done much."

The gap between pro-Western regimes in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and their citizens in the "Arab street" has widened over the Gaza conflict, just as it did during the 2006 war between Israel and the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah. Egypt criticized Hezbollah - whose popularity was surging as it stood up to Israel - for provoking a conflict, just as it's done with Hamas.

Then, as now, anger among Egyptians and workaday Arabs flared. However, experts say that protests have little effect on a regime as authoritarian as Mubarak's.

"In terms of domestic unrest, no doubt that Egypt looks very bad and you can expect more demonstrations," said Issandr El Amrani, a Cairo-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, a research center. "But whether this can bring any serious threat to the regime is unlikely. This country is very tightly policed, and security forces have experience at controlling dissent."

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