Momentum dwindles as Cairo protests continue

CAIRO — Clashes erupted again Wednesday in downtown Cairo, where riot police had used rubber bullets and water cannons overnight to disperse a huge anti-government demonstration. Hundreds of protesters defied a government order and gathered in Cairo and other cities, vowing to topple the authoritarian Egyptian regime even as momentum appears to have dissipated since the first wave of demonstrations.

The Egyptian stock market plunged Wednesday as investors reacted to rumors of an impending revolution.

Skirmishes between protesters and security forces broke out at two small gatherings — in front of the lawyers' and journalists' union offices — but columns of riot police prevented crowds of more than a few hundred from amassing anywhere downtown.

The modest turnout, just a day after demonstrations of a size unseen since the 1977 bread riots, raised serious doubts as to whether Egyptians will seize the moment and demand a new government. Large-scale protests planned for after midday prayers Friday will be a key test of the opposition's ability to turn widespread frustration into real street power.

The Interior Ministry on Wednesday banned further demonstrations and warned that violators would be prosecuted. It said one riot policeman was killed after he was hit in the head with a stone, and more than 100 police officers and security forces were injured, including an officer in critical condition.

In Egypt, a reliable U.S. ally and the most populous Arab nation, people seethe over high unemployment, rising prices for basic goods and the probability that 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak will bequeath his office to his son Gamal. Mubarak has never named a vice president and he keeps his country under perpetual emergency law, giving authorities broad powers to jail anyone without charges.