Egyptian authorities restricted Internet and mobile-phone access and detained senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition group, before nationwide demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak.
More arrests of Brotherhood members are likely, said Abdel-Gelil El-Sharnoubi, editor of the group’s website. “The aim is to frustrate today’s planned protests,” he said by phone from Cairo. Among the seven is Essam El-Erian, who said yesterday that the group expects “mass protests around the country.”
The anti-government demonstrations started on Jan. 25, when thousands took to the streets of Cairo and other cities, inspired by an uprising that ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14. Nine people died in the Egyptian unrest, Human Rights Watch said yesterday. Equities and bonds tumbled. Anger has also erupted in recent months in Algeria, Morocco and Yemen, which all face spiraling food prices.
The demonstrators are demanding the ouster of Mubarak, who hasn’t publicly said whether he’ll run in elections this year. The 82-year-old, a U.S. ally, has been in power since 1981. Opposition campaigner Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the United Nations nuclear agency, returned to Egypt yesterday and said he will take part in today’s protest.
Just after midnight Cairo time, the four main Internet service providers in Egypt were cut off, which “essentially wiped their country from the global map,” Renesys, a company based in Manchester, New Hampshire, said on its website. Renesys monitors, collects and analyzes Internet data.
About 1,000 police officers in riot gear surrounded Cairo’s main square and prevented Friday prayers from taking place at the Omar Makram Mosque. Protests were planned to begin in the early afternoon after the weekly Muslim observance. In the eastern city of Suez, about 4,000 members security officers were deployed today in anticipation of protests, Al Jazeera said.
The U.S. State Department used Twitter Inc.’s website to comment on the Egyptian response to the dissent, with spokesman Philip J. Crowley posting overnight to say, “We are concerned that communications services, including the Internet, social media and even this tweet are being blocked in Egypt.” The U.S. is “closely monitoring the situation in Egypt,” he said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called her Egyptian counterpart, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, yesterday to urge his government to exercise “restraint” in dealing with the protests, Crowley said earlier on Twitter.
Egypt’s benchmark EGX30 stock index plunged 11 percent yesterday, the most since October 2008, and has fallen 16 percent in the past two days. The country’s bourse, where companies including Orascom Construction Industries, Talaat Moustafa Group Holding and Orascom Telecom are listed, is the biggest in North Africa by market capitalization.
The Egyptian government’s dollar bonds due April 2020 fell, sending yields to a record high. Yields on the debt rose 9 basis points to 6.4 percent at 8:36 a.m. in London, extending this week’s increase to 68 basis points, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The cost to insure the country’s debt rose 5 basis points today to 381, the highest since May 2009, according to CMA prices. Egypt is rated the highest non-investment grade level at Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings.
Vodafone Group Plc is among the phone networks cut off in Egypt, where some landlines also were down.
Facebook and Twitter, which protesters have used to communicate, are among sites inaccessible in Egypt. The country has had the most reports of Internet inaccessibility in the world during the past day, according to Herdict.org, a website run by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.
ElBaradei, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, returned to Cairo late yesterday. Abdel Rahman Youssef, a leader of the pro-democracy National Association for Change with ElBaradei, said in a text message that the group had asked Egyptians to gather in their nearest square after Friday prayers.
“It could gain steam,” Hani Sabra, a Middle East analyst at Eurasia Group in New York, said in an interview. “Even if the government succeeds in limiting protests in the short term, they’ll still face pressure in the next few months.”
Clashes in cities including Suez and Ismailia continued yesterday. Riot police have been deployed in central Cairo and other urban areas since the Jan. 25 demonstrations.
Low wages and rising prices have sparked protests in Egypt since 2004. About 1.7 million workers engaged in 1,900 strikes and other forms of protest between 2004 and 2008, the Solidarity Center, a U.S. labor-rights group, said in a study last year.
Egypt, the world’s biggest wheat importer, announced additional spending of as much as 3.5 billion pounds ($600 million) in October to cover the country’s rising food bill, increasing the strain on a budget deficit that widened to 8.1 percent of gross domestic product in the fiscal year that ended in June. Wheat futures in Chicago, the global benchmark, have surged 74 percent in the past 12 months.
The economy in the country of 80 million people, the most populous in the Arab region, probably grew 6.2 percent in the last quarter of 2010, compared with 5.5 percent in the previous three months, according to official estimates. The government says it needs growth of about 7 percent to create enough jobs every year for a growing working-age population.
Mubarak has been a key American ally, and during his three- decade rule Egypt has been the second-biggest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel.
Appeal for Calm
ElBaradei, 68, urged protesters to stay calm and the government to listen to their demands.
“Change is not going to happen overnight,” ElBaradei told reporters at Cairo’s airport. “I am still here hoping to continue to manage the process of change in an orderly way, in a peaceful way. I hope the regime will do the same.”
ElBaradei helped set up the National Association for Change in 2010 to campaign for democracy and against corruption. He said in February he would run for president if the government removed constitutional restrictions on independent candidates, who currently require endorsement from parliament and local councils dominated by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
The Muslim Brotherhood is barred from entering elections as a party, though some of its candidates have been allowed to run as independents. The group, which won a fifth of parliamentary seats in 2005, failed to win any in last year’s election and said the vote had been rigged.
Egypt, like all Arab countries except Lebanon and Iraq, is classified as an authoritarian regime in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2010 Democracy Index.
The protests are unlikely to bring about “outright regime collapse,” though “the president and Egypt’s other power- brokers may decide that the time has come to try to effect a change at the top,” Nomura Holdings Inc. said today. An increased use of force against protesters may not “sit well” with foreign investors and could put more pressure on financial markets, Nomura analysts including Ann Wyman wrote.
Mubarak has no vice president or designated successor. Opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, say the president is grooming his politician son, Gamal Mubarak, to succeed him, a claim both men deny.
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