Internet and mobile phone services are down across Egypt as authorities braced themselves for demonstrations backed by both the country’s biggest opposition group and newly-returned Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei.
The government deployed an elite special operations force in Cairo on Thursday night as violence escalated outside the capital, and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has called on its members to take to the streets after Friday afternoon prayers.
The Muslim Brotherhood said at least five of its leaders and five former members of parliament have been arrested, adding a large number of its rank-and-file members had also been detained.
Egypt’s four primary internet providers – Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt, Etisalat Misr – all stopped moving data in and out of the country at 12.34am, according to a network security firm monitoring the traffic.
Telecom experts said Egyptian authorities could have engineered the cut off with a simple change to the instructions for the companies’ networking equipment. Mobile phone signals were also cut or operating sporadically in what appeared to be a move by authorities to disrupt the organisation of demonstrations.
Egyptians outside the country were posting updates on Twitter after getting information in landline calls from people inside the country. Many urged their friends to keep up the flow of information over the phones.
The developments were a sign that president Hosni Mubarak’s regime is toughening its crackdown following the biggest protests in years against his nearly 30-year rule. The counter-terror force, rarely seen on the streets, took up positions in strategic locations, including central Tahrir Square, site of the biggest demonstrations this week.
The real test for the protest movement will be whether Egypt’s fragmented opposition can come together, with Friday’s rallies expected to be some of the biggest so far. Social networking sites were abuzz that the gatherings called for after Friday prayers could attract huge numbers of protesters demanding the ousting of Mubarak.
The 82-year-old Mubarak has not been seen in public or heard from since the protests began on Tuesday with tens of thousands marching in Cairo and a string of other cities.
Violence escalated on Thursday at protests outside the capital. In the flashpoint city of Suez, along the strategic Suez Canal, protesters set a fire station on fire, looted weapons and turned on police. The Interior Ministry said in a statement that more than 90 police officers were injured in the clashes. There were no figures on the number of injured protesters.