SUEZ, Egypt — Thousands of Egyptians stormed a major police station Friday in the port city of Suez — overpowering riot forces, torching armored vans and freeing detainees — in what may be the fiercest of the nationwide protests against the U.S.-allied government.
A peaceful march after Friday's midday prayers turned into an anarchic riot, with throngs of young Egyptians pushing through tear gas and volleys of rubber bullets to breach the District 40 police station's main gate.
Policemen who’d tried to escape out the side of the station were yanked off their motorbikes and beaten bloody. Officers' helmets and batons became trophies for the rioters.
Rioters looted at least six armored personnel carriers for blankets and shields before overturning them and setting them ablaze. Youths stood on top of the vehicles, leading the crowd in calling for the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. Soon another chant rose from the street: "Suez! Suez! Suez!"
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This coastal city, whose famous canal is of major strategic importance to international trade, is emblematic of Egyptians' malaise. Unemployment is widespread and many educated residents don't dream of earning more than about $100 a month as civil servants. Even low-paying factory jobs go to workers from other provinces, locals complain.
The glory days of Suez, when its residents were heralded as heroes for preventing an Israeli advance during what Egyptians called the 6th of October war of 1973, are long past. The canal itself is one of the world's busiest waterways and one of Egypt's top foreign-currency sources, earning $4.5 billion in its most recent fiscal year.
"It's the one province that made Egypt, and now it's oppressed in every way," said Alaa al Haddad, 50, who gave two visiting journalists shelter and the vantage point of his balcony overlooking the besieged police station.
Haddad, his wife, Suheid, and their 23-year-old daughter, Pasant, watched the chaos below with increasing trepidation. Initially supportive of the demonstrators, who marched with signs protesting corruption and Egypt's emergency law, the family grew worried as the scene descended into looting, violence and thuggery.
If Suez is a microcosm of the unrest in Egypt, the family wondered, could this happen everywhere if Mubarak's regime were toppled?
"It shouldn't happen like this, not like this," Suheid muttered. "I feel like I'm in a dream."
Protesters overcome with tear gas banged on the family's door, begging for water and onions to draw out the sting. When Haddad opened the door a crack to pass them supplies, the men pushed in a fragile 15-year-old boy, who collapsed in the family hallway.
"You should be in school! Why did you even come out in the first place?" Haddad said as he fanned the boy and stroked his cheek until his eyelids fluttered open.
Haddad left his wife to care for the boy and returned to the balcony, where he filmed with a small camera while dodging errant projectiles from the crowd.
By this time, protesters had captured the police station. Freed prisoners stumbled out in a daze, and the rioters embraced them. Locals used bicycle-drawn wagons to haul the wounded to makeshift aid stations in the alleyways.
Looters ransacked the building, carting off fans, heaters, chairs and computers. A man who emerged with a refrigerator on his back drew laughter and cheers from the crowd. "Thieves!" Haddad said.
A second wave of riot police arrived and briefly beat back the youths, but they, too, were overwhelmed, and by 4 p.m. not a single officer was visible on the street. A group of rioters exited the station with a special prize: a huge portrait of Mubarak. It took just five minutes for them to shred the picture of their president and set it aflame.
"Gamal, tell your dad the Egyptians hate him!" the crowd chanted in a taunt aimed at Mubarak's son and presumed successor.
Suheid and her daughter paced in their purple-trimmed living room. The government had cut Internet and phone service throughout the country, and only the landlines worked. Suheid fielded calls from worried relatives as she watched the Al Jazeera satellite channel, which reaches millions of viewers in the Middle East, describe the events happening just beyond her doorstep.
"Suez on Al Jazeera? We weren't even on the map before this!" Suheid exclaimed.
At one point a wail echoed from the halls of the apartment building: "In this whole building no one will open its door for me?"
Haddad peered out his front door and found a riot policemen slumped on the landing. He'd been disarmed by the rioters and was crying, saying that his friend was trapped in one of the burning police vans.
Haddad and his wife, with tears in their eyes, gave the man water but didn't usher him into the safety of their apartment.
An hour later he was gone, and no one could say what had happened to him.
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