Rocks fly as pro- and anti-government protesters clash during demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo on February 2, 2011. (Photo: Ed Ou / The New York Times)
Cairo - With the eyes of the Arab world upon them, protesters seeking the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak regrouped at Tahrir Square on Thursday after a night of gunfire and a day of mayhem that left at least five dead and more than 800 wounded in a battle for the Middle East’s most populous nation.
The outcome is pivotal in a region where uprising and unrest have spread from Tunisia to many other lands, including Jordan and Yemen, forcing their leaders into precipitate concessions to their suddenly vocal foes and stretching American diplomacy.
In Sana, the Yemeni capital, on Thursday, thousands of protesters assembled, some for and some against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The demonstrations were peaceful, in marked contrast to the chaos that ruled in Cairo on Wednesday when President Mubarak struck back at his opponents, unleashing waves of supporters armed with clubs, rocks, knives and firebombs in a concerted assault on thousands of antigovernment protesters in Tahrir Square.
Sounding a highly unusual note of public contrition among Egypt’s elite, the newly-appointed prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, said on Thursday he apologized for the violence and vowed to investigate who had instigated it, The Associated Press reported. “I offer my apology for everything that happened yesterday because it’s neither logical nor rational,” he said.
A government spokesman, Magdy Rady, denied that the authorities had been involved in the violence. “To accuse the government of mobilising this is a real fiction. That would defeat our object of restoring the calm,” the spokesman told Reuters. “We were surprised with all these actions.”
In the clashes on Wednesday, the Egyptian military did nothing to intervene. But, on Thursday for the first time, a thin line of soldiers backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers appeared to have taken up positions between the combatants and to be urging Mr. Mubarak’s supporters, numbering in the hundreds, to avoid confrontation.
For their part, several thousand anti-government protesters, far fewer than in previous days, called for peaceful protest. “An Egyptian will not attack another,” some chanted from behind makeshift barricades thrown up to seal access to the square. “No bloodshed.”
When one man shouted an insult at a Mubarak supporter around 100 yards away, another, Mahmoud Haqiqi, told him: “Don’t say that. Stay quiet. Tell them we are here for their sake.”
After hours of bloody clashes starting on Wednesday with rocks, iron bars and petrol bombs into the night, the confrontation seemed to escalate early Thursday morning when the staccato rattle of automatic gunfire rang out over Cairo.
It was unclear whether the shots came from the pro-government demonstrators or from the military forces stationed in the square.
Two people were killed by the gunfire and 45 people were wounded, said a doctor at a nearby emergency clinic set up by the antigovernment demonstrators. After the initial volleys, soldiers fired into the air, temporarily scattering most of the people in the square.
The Egyptian Health Ministry said on Thursday that five people have been killed in the violence since Wednesday and 836 injured, most of them hit by stones or beaten with metal rods and sticks.
More than 150 people have died in the uprising, human rights groups say.
By mid-morning on Thursday, as the protesters’ numbers again began to swell, the antigovernment side had held its ground in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square — the focus of the clashes — milling around and chanting slogans on the 10th day of the campaign to oust Mr. Mubarak.
Volunteers arrived carrying water, yoghurt, bananas and medical supplies for the makeshift clinics that sprung up to tend the wounded. In the absence of any municipal services or authority, others tried to sweep the square of debris, using brooms, shovels and sheets of cardboard.
The violence on Wednesday and Thursday seemed to have hardened the protesters’ demands, going far beyond the ouster of Mr. Mubarak. “The people want the execution of the president,” some chanted. “Mubarak is a war criminal.”
Some low-level clashes continued, but nothing on the scale of the volleys of rocks and petrol bombs of the earlier fighting.
Early Thursday, the square was littered with rocks and makeshift barricades, with smoke drifting overhead. Troops guarded the Egyptian Museum, Cairo’s great storehouse of priceless antiquities dating to the time of the Pharaohs and a huge emblem of national pride.
As the fear of further clashes gripped Cairo, foreigners, including many Americans, continued their exodus.
In a statement, the American Embassy, which has ordered the compulsory evacuation of some diplomats and their families, said that more than 1,900 American citizens had been flown out of Egypt since Monday and more would leave on Thursday.
There was no indication that the anti-government side was in a mood for retreat. On Thursday, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood — the biggest organized opposition group — again rejected a government offer to negotiate once the protesters had left Tahrir Square.
Essam el-Erian, a senior leader of the Islamist organization, told Reuters the movement was calling for the removal of “the regime, not the state.”
“This regime’s legitimacy is finished, with its president, with his deputy, its ministers, its party, its Parliament. We said this clearly. We refuse to negotiate with it because it has lost its legitimacy,” he said.
Wednesday’s crackdown was in defiance of calls by the United States and Europe to avoid violence, and it provoked swift condemnation and a rift with the Egyptian government, a longstanding ally.
Only two days after the military pledged not to fire on protesters, it was unclear where the army stood. Many protesters contended that Mr. Mubarak was provoking a confrontation in order to prompt a military crackdown.
Mohamed ElBaradei, who was designated to negotiate with the government on behalf of the opposition, demanded on Wednesday that the army move in and protect the protesters. The deployment of plainclothes forces paid by Mr. Mubarak’s ruling party — men known here as baltageya — has been a hallmark of the Mubarak government, and there were many signs that the violence was carefully choreographed.
The preparations for a confrontation began Wednesday morning, a day after Mr. Mubarak pledged to step down in September while insisting that he would die on Egyptian soil. The president’s supporters waved flags as though they were headed to a protest, but armed themselves as though they were itching for a fight. Several wore hard hats; one had a meat cleaver, and two others grabbed the raw materials to make firebombs from their car.
Some of the Mubarak supporters arrived in buses. When they spoke with one another, they referred to the antigovernment protesters as foreigners or traitors, and to Mr. Mubarak as Egypt’s “father.”
But some were also men like Mohamed Hassan, an accountant, who had attended Tuesday’s antigovernment demonstration. “Of course we needed a change,” Mr. Hassan said on Wednesday, standing on the Corniche, a boulevard in sight of the Egyptian Museum. Mr. Mubarak’s speech had changed his mind. “I think all of our demands were filled,” he said. “We need change, but step by step.”
The anti-Mubarak demonstrators had organized themselves to try to avoid violence. Men held hands in long chains to keep the two groups apart. Others, with effusive apologies, searched those entering the square for weapons. Some stepped in with whistles to break up arguments that had started to grow heated.
Several people interviewed independently said that ruling party operatives had offered them 50 Egyptian pounds, less than $10, if they agreed to demonstrate in the square on Mr. Mubarak’s behalf. “Fifty pounds for my country!” said Yasmina Salah, 29.
Then, suddenly, at exactly 2:15 p.m., arguments between pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrators around the square turned into shoving matches.
“We don’t know who is with us and who is against us now — we are lost,” said Abdel Raouf Mohamed, 37, before he was interrupted by a burly young man who shouted: “I love Mubarak! I need Mubarak!”
Seven minutes later, Reda Sadak, 45, said, “In 10 minutes, there will be a big fight here — it is an old game, the oldest game in the regime.”
In fact, before he finished speaking, rocks and sticks began to fly from the pro-Mubarak forces into the crowd of anti-Mubarak demonstrators.
Even then, many tried to avoid retaliation. A line of a half-dozen unarmed men stood quietly, waving their hands in the air while the pro-Mubarak forces rained rocks down on them.
At 2:50 p.m., as hundreds of rocks flew past the Egyptian Museum, two tanks started up. Anti-Mubarak protesters who had been standing on them jumped off and the crowd cheered with delight. “The people and the army are one hand!” they chanted.
The tanks rolled to create a barricade between the opposing groups, and for a while the soldiers encouraged both sides to calm down. But then the soldiers seemed to retreat, and soon the anti-Mubarak forces began hauling scraps of metal to build a barricade around one tank.
A soldier on top of another tank fired live ammunition into the air to push back a surging group of pro-Mubarak protesters. A couple of men jumped up on the tank and started to kiss his feet, and for a moment the soldier, weapon in hand, began to cry.
A higher-ranking officer climbed up, and the anti-Mubarak protesters begged him to protect them. “But aren’t they Egyptian?” the officer replied. “You want me to fire at Egyptians?”
And for the rest of the day the soldiers did nothing, telling anti-Mubarak protesters who begged them to engage that they “had no orders.”
Then, about 3:15 p.m., the battle was joined. Abandoning any attempt to avoid violence, thousands of anti-Mubarak protesters used scraps of steel to rip up the pavement into pieces, carrying them in milk crates and scarves to hurl back at their attackers.
“They want to take the revolution from us,” said Mohamed Gamil, a 30-year-old dentist in the crowd of antigovernment protesters. “We are ready to die for the revolution.”
Pro-government demonstrators chanted, “With our blood, with our souls, we sacrifice for you, oh Mubarak.” Eighteen charged their foes on horseback and two on camels.
Many journalists were harassed and detained.
David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo, and Alan Cowell from Paris. Kareem Fahim, Mona El-Naggar and Anthony Shadid contributed reporting from Cairo.
This article "Protesters Clash Again on Cairo’s Streets" originally appeared at The New York Times.
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