Following unrest in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt is the latest North African government to face widespread protest calling for the president to step down.

Protests are effectively prohibited under Egypt’s emergency laws. But inspired by recent events in Tunisia, the protestors chose 25 January, Egypt’s National Police Day, to stage the largest demonstrations seen in the country since rioting over the price of bread in the 1970s (MEED 21:1:11).

Using blogs and social networking services, such as Twitter and Facebook to organise mass gatherings across the country, government estimates put the number of protestors at 10,000 in the capital, Cairo, mainly at Tahrir Square, with another 10,000-20,000 in major cities across the country.

The protestors are demanding an end to the state of emergency that has been in place since 1967 and for presidential term limits to be introduced. Mubarak has been in power for 30 years and his son, Gamal Mubarak is widely seen as the president’s most likely successor.

It is not only the scale of unrest which is unprecedented. The usually heavy-handed state response has so far been restrained, although more than 800 people are thought to have been detained and four people, including one policeman, have been killed so far.  

Cairo is already nervous about the political transition from Hosni Mubarak, who is now 82 and with reported health problems. For now, the government will rely on its traditional methods of maintaining legitimacy and dampen protests – rolling back subsidy cuts and tighter security. Egypt’s powerful military has so far stayed away.

On 26 January, the Interior Ministry announced that public gathering and protests, the work of “ineffective young people” and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood would no longer be tolerated.

The Islamist group is Egypt’s largest opposition party, but since being banned has had to field parliamentary candidates as independents.

A second wave of protests is expected on Friday. It is not clear how the protestors will organise themselves this time, as, Twitter and Facebook say their services have been blocked in the country since 25 January.

While the Muslim Brotherhood broadly supports the aims of the protests, with its leaders regularly detained, it says it will not officially join the protests, but its members are free to do so independently. Mohamed Elbaradi, a former director general of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency and potential presidential candidate, has also said he will abstain from the protests.