CAIRO — Thousands of Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo and at least four other major cities Tuesday, demanding an end to the 30-year rule by President Hosni Mubarak less than two weeks after a popular uprising toppled Tunisia's dictator and sent shockwaves through the Arab world.
Egyptian state media reported that a police officer died, and there were unconfirmed reports in other news media that two demonstrators were killed during the biggest anti-government protests in decades.
"We want our rights," demonstrators chanted. They also demanded an end to corruption, rampant unemployment and political repression. The government deployed throngs of black-clad police in anti-riot gear across Egypt, and used teargas and water cannons to disperse demonstrators in Cairo.
It also interrupted Web access to independent news sites and Twitter and jammed cell phone signals in downtown Cairo. It was a surprising move by Mubarak — who's generally allowed free speech and occasional protests — and may reflect fear that the unrest could mushroom. Demonstrations also took place in Alexandria on the northern coast, Mahalla in the Nile Delta, Aswan in the south and Suez in the east.
Dozens were injured or arrested, but official figures weren't immediately available.
"This is only the beginning. It's the first step towards change," said Ahmed Salah, 45, an activist who helped organize the protests.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters the U.S. is "very closely" monitoring the demonstrations around Egypt and supports "the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people." But she added the Egyptian government is "stable" and looking for ways to respond to "the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people."
What organizers dubbed a "day of revolt" was inspired in part by a Facebook page, "We Are All Khaled Said," named for a 28-year-old Egyptian who police beat to death in the streets of the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria last summer. His story paralleled that of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian fruit seller whose self-immolation after a confrontation with police catalyzed the Tunisian revolution.
Observers said the protests were the biggest in Egypt since the "bread riots" of the 1970s, when hundreds of thousands rioted to protest against rising food prices.
"It's definitely significant, and impressive that they managed to mobilize considering all the obstacles and security presence the protestors are facing," said Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, a policy organization focused on the Muslim world.
"If they are able to build on today, then it will challenge the regime's power and control," Hamid said.
Mohamed Maree, 25, who demonstrated in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla, said thousands had taken to the streets and that police had formed a cordon around them. Egyptian authorities had sternly warned against staging the protest and threatened to arrest law-breakers.
Police closed off streets in Cairo, a sprawling city with 20 million inhabitants, but protesters regrouped and continued marching in other areas. A sea of demonstrators briefly commandeered Tahrir Square, the biggest in Cairo, before being blocked by police. There were scattered reports of injuries and arrests, but no official figures were immediately available.
The demonstrators were inspired by the wave of street protests that brought down the regime in Tunisia and sent its strongman president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fleeing to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14.
Egypt is being closely watched as one country where the Tunisian revolt could perhaps be replicated. The Arab world's most populous state, and one of its political and cultural bellwethers, it shares similarities to much smaller Tunisia: economic stagnation, abusive and all-powerful police, soaring food prices and a long-serving ruler who seems bent on enriching family members.
Mubarak, who's 82 and in ill-health, is believed to be grooming his son, Gamal, to succeed him. Last fall, however, the ruling National Democratic Party announced that Mubarak would run for a sixth term in office in elections later this year.
Long a staunch ally of the U.S. — and the recipient of some $2 billlion in annual U.S. aid — Egypt has faced growing international pressure since November, when Mubarak's party won 96 percent of seats in parliamentary elections widely derided as a sham.
Mubarak's regime also has faced criticism for renewing a three-decade emergency law that allows the police wide-ranging powers to conduct arbitrary arrests and hold people in detention without trial, keeping the country in effect under martial law.
The state of emergency didn't prevent a suicide attack outside a Coptic church in Alexandria on New Year's Day that left 21 dead and renewed fears of sectarian strife in the majority Muslim country.
Some analysts have argued that the Tunisia scenario would be difficult to repeat in Egypt, where the illiteracy rate is higher and Mubarak, unlike Ben Ali, has left some room for the opposition to vent their anger through independent media and allowing demonstrations. However, Tuesday's abrupt clampdown and a recent wave of closures of private television stations indicate that the atmosphere could be changing.
(Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent. Shashank Bengali contributed to this article from Baghdad. Warren P. Strobel contributed from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more news from the Middle East, visit McClatchy's blog, Middle East Diary.