Egypt's Hosni Mubarak appeared to unleash his thugs on peaceful protesters gathered in Tahrir Square today, turning streets near the square into a frenzied and chaotic battle zone. It marked a darker turn in the eight days of demonstrations as protesters and the government appear to be digging in their heels.
Hundreds of people were reported wounded in vicious fighting that broke out suddenly Wednesday afternoon as the protesters who have filled the square since Friday continued to call for the end of his regime.
The violence, which appeared to be state-sanctioned, comes a day after President Mubarak announced he would not run for reelection in September, a concession that emboldened protesters calling for his immediate resignation.
The move to unleash violence on the protesters indicates a chilling determination on Mubarak's part to hold on to power in the meantime by attempting to stop the protests. It also raises the question of whether the Army, which many saw as the deciding factor in whether Mubarak could stay in power, has now chosen a side.
'Mubarak wants all of Egypt on fire!'
Early in the day, the anti-government protesters vigilantly manned their checkpoints around Tahrir Square, extensively searching those entering the square. Witnesses said that pro-Mubarak crowds gathered and then attacked the protesters near Tahrir, some charging forward on horses and camels, waving whips.
As the fighting broke out, men staggered away from the focal point with blood running down their faces. “Mubarak wants all of Egypt on fire!” screamed a man who had just witnessed the beginning of the violence. “He wants to destroy Egypt! He wants chaos in Egypt!”
Army soldiers looked on passively as the two sides fought a savage battle, throwing stones at one another. Men fashioned helmets out of flower pots, jackets, or whatever else was around to protect against the deadly projectiles, and dozens stumbled away severely wounded.
Men in the crowd harassed journalists and tried to prevent them from shooting photos. Some journalists were attacked, raising criticism from Washington.
“The United States deplores and condemns the violence that is taking place in Egypt, and we are deeply concerned about attacks on the media and peaceful demonstrators,” the White House said today in a statement. President Obama last night said political transition must “begin now.”
Police disguise as pro-Mubarak protesters
Families who had come to join the protests, which had been peaceful since Friday, were forced to flee. Witnesses described the attackers as plainclothes police or possibly henchmen on the payroll of the Interior Ministry.
“We caught one of them, and checked his ID, and saw that he was police,” said Ahmed Zaghloul, who displayed a head wound from the rocks. “The government is trying to start a civil war. This is chaos.”
Nearby protesters tried to attack one man from the pro-Mubarak group who had been captured. He had a gushing head wound and some tried to protect him from the crowd.
Others pulled up the pavement, breaking it into projectile-size pieces, and ferried it to the frontlines. One man sat on the ground, intently fashioning a helmet out of a political sign and some string. At one of the entrances to Tahrir Square, anti-government protesters locked arms and formed cordons five deep, trying to keep out pro-Mubarak protesters.
Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition leader and former chief of the UN nuclear watchdog, today called for the Army to step in. But amid the tumult, the Army appeared to stand by passively, prompting questioning from the protesters who had welcomed them days before as their saviors.
“Is the Army with us anymore? That is the question,” said Zaghloul. “They just watched while the people were attacked. It was horrible.”