Cairo - Egyptian authorities scrambled low-flying fighter jets and dispatched helicopters over thousands of protesters gathered Sunday in the central square of the capital for a sixth day of demonstrations against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
On the first day of the Egyptian workweek, witnesses also reported protests in the city of Alexandria as the military announced full control over major cities, and an ominous sense of impending violence swept across the country. Gas stations, banks and many businesses were shuttered in the capital.
Sunday's protests were less boisterous than in previous days but just as fervent. Arab television channels showed large crowds gathering in Cairo's Tahrir Square chanting, "The people want the regime to fall."
For nearly a week, Egypt has been rocked by its worst civil unrest in recent history. Inspired by the popular uprising that toppled the 23-year regime of Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine ben Ali, ordinary Egyptians have taken to the streets to oppose Mubarak, who has ruled the country for 30 years. Led by a new generation of youth, they have defied Mubarak's extensive security apparatus, including police, which have largely fled their posts and left the cities of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez to the army.
As the protests continued, the despised Egyptian police have vacated cities, sparking fear among residents, who stood guard in their neighborhoods armed with bats and clubs against potential looting. Adolescents were seen wielding steel bars. Al Arabiya television reported that shops had been targeted in a rash of looting incidents and that the army had arrested an unspecified number of outlaws in the act of stealing.
Arabiya also reported in urgent screen captions that thousands of Islamists held in prisons had escaped from the Wadi Natroun prison north of Cairo. State television interviewed some members of the outlawed Islamist opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood who earlier had been freed in an apparent goodwill gesture by Mubarak's regime.
The Associated Press cited unnamed security officials as saying prisoners had escaped from four prisons. But many wonder whether the regime is creating a security panic — even directing plainclothes agents to riot and loot — in order to send protesters scurrying back to their homes and justify a harsh crackdown, a tactic used by the Iranian government to crush 2009 protests and Ben Ali in a failed attempt to halt protests earlier this month.
"This is an unwritten rule regarding the nature of urban war and uprisings, and it's meant to gain power over the street," said Theodore Karasik, an analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, a think tank in Dubai and Beirut. "It backfires when others from other security or military units see what happens and try to mitigate or encourage it. I think its commonplace, more commonplace than we believe."
The army appeared to have bolstered its presence. Soldiers stood guard on streets, preventing drivers from accessing key roads. The army has pleaded with Egyptians to abide by a 6 p.m. curfew that has so far been brazenly flouted.
Cellphone and Internet coverage continued to be spotty, the result of the regime's attempt to prevent protesters from organizing by way of text messages and social-networking websites such as Facebook.
Mubarak's regime also has taken heavy-handed measures against international media. Al Jazeera on Sunday condemned the closure of its Cairo bureau by Egyptian authorities. The Doha-based channel, which has energized activists with its nonstop coverage of widespread protests against authoritarian regimes throughout the Arab world, vowed to continue its work.
"Al Jazeera sees this as an act designed to stifle and repress the freedom of reporting by the network and its journalists," the network said in a statement. "In this time of deep turmoil and unrest in Egyptian society, it is imperative that voices from all sides be heard."
The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings are motivating people around the Arab world to voice solidarity. Protesters gathered Friday in front of the Egyptian embassies in Amman, Jordan and Beirut.
"We would like to see all authoritarian regimes change their policies or risk the wrath of their people," Hamza Mansour, secretary general of the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, was quoted as saying.
He added that the event was a sign of Arab solidarity. "Arab reform has started in Tunisia, and we expect to see it everywhere."
Protests against authoritarian Arab regimes also have broken out in Jordan, Yemen and Algeria. In Lebanon on Sunday morning, several hundred protesters marched in Beirut to demand that the country's fragmented political elite quit squabbling and address economic concerns.
"Tunisia and Egypt had only one dictator," said Maytham Kassir, 20, a student at the Lebanese University. "We have 15 or 16."
This article "Egypt Dispatches Jets, Helicopters Over Protesters on Sixth Day of Turmoil" originally appeared at The Los Angeles Times.
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