Egypt street battles: How Cairo's Tahrir Square turned into a war zone overnight

Egypt's Army was absent during hours of fighting Wednesday night in which the antigovernment protesters were able hold off attacks from supporters of President Hosni Mubarak.

Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor
Egyptian anti-government protesters break up the street in Cairo's Tahrir Square for ammunition to throw at Mubarak supporters on February 2.

Protesters against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak held their ground in central Cairo overnight, despite coming under vicious and violent attacks by people who appeared to be organized by the government.

The military began to step in between the two sides Thursday morning. But it was absent during hours of fighting with rocks, sticks, and Molotov cocktails Wednesday night. Antigovernment protesters were able push their attackers back, finally holding them behind a front line created behind the Egyptian museum. Doctors at a makeshift hospital said at least three people had been killed in the fighting. Al Jazeera on Thursday reported that seven people had been killed, and more than 800 wounded.

“We will never surrender,” said anti-Mubarak protester Mohamed Issam. "This is my war, and we will fight for victory until the end.”

In the early-morning hours Thursday, protesters sheltered behind a barricade made of steel fencing taken from a construction site, listening to the steady thump of rocks hitting the wall as the pro-Mubarak attackers stood on a nearby bridge and hurled stones and flaming projectiles. Behind the barricade, men pounded on a metal fence, creating a rhythmic drumbeat to urge on the weary but determined protesters. A palm tree blazed after catching fire from a Molotov cocktail, and in its light young men stood atop a burned-out car to hurl chunks of concrete at the people on the bridge. A woman in black robes wandered through the crowd, wailing.

Tearing up the streets

Behind the front lines was an organized and persistent battle effort. The pavement of the street beside the Egyptian museum was completely gone, and in its place were heaps of stones. Men sat on sidewalks, methodically breaking up the tiles into smaller pieces to use as weapons. Others gathered them onto trays and carried them to the front lines. Scores of men worked together to push burned-out trucks to the front to reinforce the barricade.

First-aid stations were set up to treat the wounded. In what had been an Egypt Air office, the windows now broken out, doctors bandaged and sutured wounds.

At one first-aid station just behind the front lines, cardiologist Dina Amr donated her time to help her fellow Egyptians. She lives and works in Beirut, but came back to help the protest effort. “I came back to share in this,” she says, wearing a hard hat over her dark hair. “I’m not from the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood], and I don’t like ElBaradei. I’m just with the Egyptian people. Their voice must be listened to,” she said before rushing to treat an incoming patient.

Makeshift hospitals

Further back in Tahrir Square, volunteer doctors set up a makeshift hospital in Ebad al-Rahman Mosque. Bandaged people lay on the floor, and donated supplies were haphazardly stacked against walls, as doctors stitched up head wounds and reset dislocated shoulders on prayer mats. Volunteers sat on the floor fashioning bandages out of cotton and gauze.

Dr. Essam Salim said most of the injuries were head wounds from thrown rocks. All of the supplies had been brought by volunteers.

Outside the building, six horses stood tethered to the wall. They were captured from pro-Mubarak attackers, some of whom charged into the crowds on horses and camels. The protesters said their attackers were police in civilian clothing or thugs paid by the government. They expressed sorrow and incredulity that their president would stoop to such a level.

Amal Diab, a middle-aged woman standing behind the fighting, said President Mubarak had fashioned himself a father figure for his nation. She then directed a question to him. “How come you can foment violence among your own citizens? Is that fatherhood?”

Egypt's new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, held a press conference Thursday promising an investigation into the attacks, but he – along with the rest of Mubarak's new government – lacks legitimacy in the eyes of many protesters. Mr. Shafiq offered to start negotiations with the opposition, but opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei has rejected the offer.

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