CAIRO -- Thousands of Egyptian protesters inspired by the revolt in Tunisia rushed police and battled tear gas Tuesday in demonstrations against the political repression and unemployment that have defined three decades of rule by President Hosni Mubarak.
Groups of protesters marched through downtown Cairo, crossing bridges and outflanking riot police as the crowds headed for a square a few blocks from the parliament building. Security forces, which had shown unusual restraint early in the day, swung batons and clashed with demonstrators amid chants of "Freedom" and "Down with Mubarak."
The protests were larger than any Egypt has seen in years. But it was unclear if the country's opposition could mimic Tunisia and capitalize on sustained public pressure to threaten one of the region's most entrenched police states. More than 80,000 people signed up on Facebook to attend the rallies, but the number in the streets was far fewer.
Estimates suggested that at least several thousand protesters squared off against as many as 20,000 security forces. Cairo became a fluid maze of protesters rushing through traffic as helmeted police -- their boots slapping the pavement -- hurried to corral them on boulevards lined with amazed bystanders.
"Don't just sit there, get up, get up and join us," Sharif Hussein Mekawi shouted at shopkeepers, mechanics and laborers who refused to join the march. "We are different than Tunisia. The Tunisians had only no freedom. We have no freedom, but we have poverty and no food and no jobs. We are a body with many more diseases."
The reluctant men facing Mekawi are this nation's crucial test between rebellion and the status quo. Opposition leaders and protest groups, battling egos and disparate agendas, have so far failed to ignite the passion of a people struggling to make a living while carrying deep fear of a regime long criticized for police brutality and torture.
"This is our first protest in Egypt after what happened in Tunisia. This should put pressure on the regime," said Alaa Ammar as he jostled between rows of riot police. "I protested against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but since then I haven't been in the streets. I didn't think demonstrating would bring change. But after Tunisia, we see that it can. The myth that security forces are stronger than the population is gone."
By dusk, calm, at least temporarily, had enveloped the square near parliament as protesters chanted and police reinforcements arrived.
(Amro Hassan of the Times' Cairo bureau contributed to this report.)
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