CAIRO — Egyptian police fired tear gas and rubber bullets and beat protesters to clear thousands of people from a central Cairo square Wednesday after the biggest demonstrations in years against President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule.
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Two protesters and a police officer were killed in the nationwide demonstrations inspired by Tunisia's uprising, which also demanded a solution to Egypt's grinding poverty and were likely to fuel growing dissent in a presidential election year.
Mobilized largely on the Internet, the waves of protesters filled Cairo's central Tahrir — or Liberation — Square on Tuesday, some hurling rocks and climbing atop armored police trucks.
"Down with Hosni Mubarak, down with the tyrant," chanted the crowds. "We don't want you!" they screamed as thousands of riot police deployed in a massive security operation that failed to quell the protests.
As night fell, thousands of demonstrators stood their ground for what they vowed would be an all-night sit-in in Tahrir Square just steps away from parliament and other government buildings — blocking the streets and setting the stage for even more dramatic confrontations.
A large security force moved in around 1 a.m. Wednesday, arresting people, chasing others into side streets and filling the square with clouds of tear gas. Protesters collapsed on the ground with breathing problems amid the heavy volleys of tear gas.
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The sound of what appeared to be automatic weapons fire could be heard as riot police and plainclothes officers chased several hundred protesters who scrambled onto the main road along the Nile in downtown Cairo. Some 20 officers were seen brutally beating one protester with truncheons.
'Broken up ugly'
"It got broken up ugly with everything, shooting, water cannon and (police) running with the sticks," said Gigi Ibrahim, who was among the last protesters to leave the square. "It was a field of tear gas. The square emptied out so fast."
Ibrahim said she was hit in her back with something that felt like a rock. "Some people were hit in their faces."
Earlier in the day, a policeman was hit in the head with a rock during the protest in Cairo and died later in the hospital, an Interior Ministry official said.
In another demonstration in the city of Suez, two protesters were killed, he said. One of them had respiratory problems and died as a result of tear gas inhalation; the other was killed by a rock.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information to journalists.
Protesters massed Tuesday at several locations in the Egyptian capital on what is being called the "Day of Rage," chanting against Mubarak and calling for an end to poverty in the first Tunisian-inspired protest in the country. Other reports said the protests were being called the "Day of Revolution."
There were some high-profile figures in the crowd in Cairo, including Alaa al-Aswany, author of the best-selling "Yacoubian Building," which portrays corrupt politicians, police brutality and terrorism in Egypt.
A keen observer of Egyptian society, al-Aswany saw the demonstration as an important opening for the government's opponents.
'Broke the barrier of fear'
"They broke the barrier of fear," he said. "The writers of the regime were saying Egypt is not Tunisia and Egyptians are less educated than Tunisians. But here is the thing: these young people proved they can take their rights forcefully."
"This is the first time I am protesting, but we have been a cowardly nation. We have to finally say no," said 24-year-old Ismail Syed, a hotel worker who struggles to live on a salary of $50 a month.
Mothers carrying babies also marched and chanted, "Revolution until Victory!" while young waved signs reading "OUT!" that were inspired by the Tunisian protestations of "DEGAGE!" Men sprayed graffiti reading "Down with Hosni Mubarak."
"We want to see change just like in Tunisia," said Lamia Rayan, 24, one of the protesters.
The call for Tuesday's rallies spread on Facebook and Twitter, with 90,000 saying they would attend. Downtown Cairo came to a standstill and there was a massive security presence.
An NBC producer in Cairo reported that Twitter was unavailable during the protest and that access to Facebook was spotty.
Jillian York, a project coordinator at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, which runs the Herdict Web accessibility monitoring service, told Reuter that she had "confirmed with users in Egypt that Twitter.com is in fact blocked on all ISPs."
At the steps of the Lawyers' Syndicate, dozens were waving the national flag and calling for the end of Mubarak's rule. Elsewhere, protesters waves Tunisian flags.
Police said 15 members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, which has backed Tuesday's rally, were arrested in another Cairo neighborhood.
Earlier, the government had warned activists that they would face arrest if they went ahead with mass demonstrations.
"The security apparatus will deal firmly and decisively with any attempt to break the law," the government's director for security in the capital Cairo said in a statement.
The rallies have been promoted online by groups saying they speak for young Egyptians frustrated by the kind of poverty and oppression which triggered the overthrow of Tunisia's president. Similar calls have been made in other authoritarian Arab states.
The outcome of the demonstration is seen as a test of whether vibrant Web activism can translate into street action.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed confidence in the stability of Mubarak's government despite the protests. Clinton said the United States is monitoring developments in Egypt, a key Arab ally.
Clinton said Egyptians have the right to protest, but urged all parties to avoid violence.
The first ramifications of the Tunisia uprising in Egypt surfaced last week when several people set themselves on fire or attempted to do so outside parliament and the prime minister's office.
They sought to copy a young Tunisian vegetable vendor whose self-immolation helped spark the protests that forced Tunisia's authoritarian president to flee the country.Slideshow: State of emergency in Tunisia
Nearly half of Egypt's 80 million people live under or just above the poverty line set by the United Nations at $2 a day.
Poor quality education, health care and high unemployment have left large numbers of Egyptians deprived of basic needs.
Soon after the Jan. 14 ouster of Tunisia's longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, all eyes focused on Egypt, with observers wondering if the dramatic events in the North African nation could spur unrest against another entrenched Arab regime.
Organizers on Facebook challenged Egyptians to stand up, saying, "We are not less than Tunisia."
"On Jan. 25, we have to show the world that we are not a cowardly, submissive people," organizers wrote on the Facebook page.
Ahmed Maher, one of the founders of an opposition youth movement and one of the organizers, said he expected the number to be well above previous protests of several hundreds or several thousands.
"Young people are very excited, and this time there will be much more than any other time," Maher told The Associated Press. He said organizers spread 150,000 flyers promoting the protests across the country.
The call for protests was first initiated by "The Martyr" Facebook page, set up in the name of a young Egyptian man, Khaled Said, whose family and witnesses say was beaten to death by a pair of policemen in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria last year. His case has become a rallying point for the opposition.Story: Clinton decries Hezbollah's power in Lebanon
Witnesses say the two plainclothes policemen dragged him from a cafe and beat him to death on the sidewalk. Two policemen are currently on trial in connection with his death.
Legal parties such as the liberal Wafd and Al-Ghad in addition to supporters of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood — Egypt's best organized opposition group — workers, students, government employees and activists said they will join the rally.
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Organizers listed instructions on the Facebook page, including: bring an Egyptian flag, leave any other banners that represent your religious or political affiliation at home.
"Today is for all Egyptians," it declares.
But some passers-by dismissed the protests, saying a few thousand of Cairo's 18 million people coming out on the streets was not nearly enough to force change.
"This is all just a waste of time," said Ali Mustafa Ibrahim, who works at a cigarette stand. "These are a bunch of kids playing cat and mouse. ... It's just going to create more problems and more traffic in the city."
NBC News, the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.