Cairo - The internet and mobile-phone data service appeared to be cut across Egypt on Monday 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 last night as violence escalated outside the capital, and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood called on its members to take to the streets after Friday afternoon prayers.
Uniformed security forces at least temporarily disappeared from the streets of central Cairo mid-morning today, but truckloads of riot police and armoured cars started moving back about an hour later.
The Muslim Brotherhood said at least five of its leaders and five former members of parliament had been arrested.
The group's lawyer, Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maksoud, and spokesman, Walid Shalaby, said a large number of rank-and-file Brotherhood 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 cutoff with a simple change to the instructions for the companies' networking equipment.
The internet appeared to remain cut off this morning, and mobile-phone text and Blackberry Messenger services were all 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 voice 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.
The movement's momentum appeared to gather on Thursday with the return of Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei and the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Social networking sites were abuzz that the gatherings called after Friday prayers could attract huge numbers of protesters demanding the ousting of Mubarak. Millions gather at mosques across the city on Fridays, giving organisers a vast pool of people to tap into. - Belfast Telegraph