The Egyptian government struck back at its opponents on Wednesday, unleashing waves of pro-government provocateurs armed with clubs, stones, rocks and knives in and around Tahrir Square in a concerted effort to rout the protesters who have called for an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s near-30-year rule.
After first trying to respond peacefully, the protesters fought back with rocks and Molotov cocktails as battles broke out around the square. A makeshift medical clinic staffed by dozens of doctors tended to a steady stream of anti-government protesters, many bleeding from head wounds.
The Egyptian health minister, Ahmed Sameh Farid, said that 596 people have been injured in the battles in Tahrir Square and that one man was killed when he fell off a bridge, The Associated Press reported.
As the two sides to the fight exchanged volleys, the military restricted itself mostly to guarding the Egyptian Museum and using water cannons to extinguish flames stoked by the firebombs. And on Wednesday night, state media broadcast an order from the government for all protesters to leave the square.
Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room at Wired:
A plume of thick white smoke is emerging right now in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, an epicenter of Egypt’s massive protests, as “running battles” have broken out between the anti-regime protesters and pro-government forces. The Egyptian Army has yet to intervene. It would appear the government of Hosni Mubarak, on the ropes for the past eight days, has begun its crackdown.
Even as he pledged to step down in September, Mubarak told his police forces, the bulwark of his 30-year rule, to “shoulder its responsibilities” and “arrest the outlaws” yesterday. Within the hour, previously unseen supporters of Mubarak fought with protesters in Alexandria. Now it’s spread to the massive crowds at Tahrir Square in Cairo, where the demonstrators weren’t placated by Mubarak’s speech.
It’s all happening right now, live on Al Jazeera, and it’s not pretty. Protesters are throwing rocks at one another, and eyewitnesses report that people they believe are plainclothes police are wielding knives, sticks and “daggers.” The past week of anti-regime protests has been notable for their nonviolence. Now, pro-regime demonstrators are charging the square on horseback and camelback — two protesters even pulled someone off a camel. It’s worth noting that the regime has turned the Internet back on, as Renesys reports, right in time for its supporters to mobilize.
People are rushing one another near the square, where “pro-and anti-Mubarak forces are coming face to face in the side streets,” according to Al Jazeera’s on-scene correspondent. “I can see people running past me with blood on their shirts… No one knows where to go, who’s with who.” No one seems to know what caused the white smoke.
What about the Egyptian Army, which won accolades from the U.S. for not suppressing the anti-government demonstrations? It’s taking a hands-off approach, telling demonstrators that since everyone involved is a civilian, soldiers are not going to take sides. That’s according to anti-regime demonstrator Salma Eltarzi, who told Al Jazeera that she sees Mubarak’s game plan at work.
“We are in disbelief. We cannot believe [Mubarak] is so low,” she told the network. “The Army is very clear: you are both civilians and you cannot beat civilians. This is the game. He wants it to seem like the people are fighting each other so he has an excuse — ‘I was going to leave, but the people’s needs demand that I stay.”
Max Fisher at The Atlantic with the live-blog
The contrast to Pres. Obama’s speech last night and what has erupted the last two hours in Egypt is stark and reveals the lack of control the American President has over the situation.
Coming after Mubarak’s speech yesterday, what’s been playing out this morning has been frightening to watch.
Curfew is approaching, “a very intense battle” is how it’s being described on Al Jazeera English.
One person interviewed in the last half hour used the words “investigations” for Pres. Mubarak.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the violence.
…but on it rages.
Patrick Appel at Sullivan’s place:
Sonia Verma of the Globe and Mail is tweeting from the scene. Her most recent tweets, blocked into paragraphs:
Pro mubarak supporters jumping onto tanks. I am watching one have a very long talk with a soldier. Standing at one of the exits to tahrir. pro mubarak supporters standing on army tanks.
Hundreds of pro dem protesters pouring out of tahrir as things heat up. Groups of men mobilizing, arming themselves with bricks and sticks. Crowds pushing to get out of tahrir square. People saying they will use bricks as weapons. People digging up bricks in tarhir square. Everyone on edge today. Very different vibe than yesterday.
Very ominous information coming out of Cairo, with reports of gunfire. Al Jazeera suggests they might be warning shots to keep people away from the museum, which is being defended by a number of military vehicles.
Mackey flags the reaction of an Egyptian blogger:
In a biting, angry and harrowing commentary on the clashes unfolding in Cairo on Wednesday, the Egyptian blogger who writes as Sandmonkey has called the appearance of regime supporters on Cairo’s streets, igniting violent clashes, a ploy by President Hosni Mubarak to create chaos and justify his continued rule.
Additionally, al-Jazeera and other news sources have posted pictures of police ID’s taken from the “pro-Mubarak” demonstrators, lending credibility to the theory that this is little more than a police operation designed to break the back of the protest and, of course, inflict bloodshed.
The pro-Mubarak crowd has also apparently turned its violence on journalists covering the protests:
Anderson Cooper and his crew have been attacked by supporters of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, according to CNN.
CNN’s Steve Brusk tweeted that “Anderson said he was punched 10 times in the head as pro-Mubarak mob surrounded him and his crew trying to cover demonstration.”
This is only going to get worse. More to come, I’m sure.
Amanpour says that Barack Obama will continue to push for a quick resolution, but that may have to change. She points out that the nation’s mainstream isn’t necessarily out on the streets. The Egyptian middle class may well want a more orderly transition, perhaps especially after seeing the violence in the streets today, and may end up backing Mubarak’s plan to restore order, at least in the short term. The White House had better take care not to get too far ahead of itself.