Thousands of riot police beat pro-democracy activists on Thursday, chasing them through the streets of the Egyptian capital and dragging some on the ground to break up a demonstration in support of judges who face punishment for blowing the whistle on election fraud.
The violence appeared to signal a tough new no-tolerance stance by the Egyptian government, a top US ally, toward protests demanding reform amid complaints that President Hosni Mubarak has backed off promises of democratic change.
The US State Department said it was "deeply concerned" about the police assault on protesters and would be raising the matter with the government.
"We urge the Egyptian government to permit peaceful demonstrations on behalf of reform and civil liberties," spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters at the State Department's daily briefing.
The protests were called to support two judges from Egypt's highest court who have become heroes of the democracy movement after they went public with claims of fraud during parliament elections last year. The two have been ordered before a court panel for possible disciplinary action.
But the protesters -- who numbered in the hundreds, turning out for a scheduled hearing of the panel on Thursday -- were met by a massive security force, with lines of riot police wielding long sticks and cordoning off streets around the court in downtown Cairo.
Uniformed police chased protesters through the streets, grabbing them and beating some before dragging them toward awaiting trucks or into the entrances of nearby buildings.
Dozens were arrested, police officials said, without giving precise numbers.
"This is what the regime is doing to us ... we are victims and strangers in our homeland," one protester, Hafez el-Fergani, shouted before police chased after him.
Police pulled an elderly woman by her arms, trying to drag her into a police van. When she resisted, the policemen tore the front of her robe, throwing her sprawled on the pavement with her underclothes exposed, said a witness, activist Bothaina Kamel. Other witnesses reported police pulling women activists and journalists by the hair.
Nearby, police beat a man with sticks, then kicked him after he fell to the pavement, Kamel said.
While most of the protesters were secular activists, police arrested 120 members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood during a rally held at a mosque in solidarity with the judges, the Brotherhood said on its Web site. The Web site's director, Abdel Gelil el-Sharnoubi, said that about 300 Brotherhood members had been detained across the country, including those arrested in Cairo. The police did not confirm these figures.
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