CAIRO – Supporters of President Hosni Mubarak charged into Cairo’s central square on horses and camels brandishing whips while others rained firebombs from rooftops in what appeared to be an orchestrated assault against protesters trying to topple Egypt’s leader of 30 years. Three people died and 600 were injured.
The protesters accused Mubarak’s regime of unleashing a force of paid thugs and plainclothes police to crush their unprecedented 9-day-old movement, a day after the 82-year-old president refused to step down. They showed off police ID badges they said were wrested from their attackers. Some government workers said their employers ordered them into the streets.
Mustafa el-Fiqqi, a top official from the ruling National Democratic Party, told The Associated Press that businessmen connected to the ruling party were responsible for what happened.
The notion that the state may have coordinated violence against protesters, who had kept a peaceful vigil in Tahrir Square for five days, prompted a sharp rebuke from the Obama administration.
“If any of the violence is instigated by the government, it should stop immediately,” said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
The clashes marked a dangerous new phase in Egypt’s upheaval: the first significant violence between government supporters and opponents. The crisis took a sharp turn for the worse almost immediately after Mubarak rejected the calls for him to give up power or leave the country, stubbornly proclaiming he would die on Egyptian soil.
His words were a blow to the protesters. They also suggest that authorities want to turn back the clock to the tight state control enforced before the protests began.
Mubarak’s supporters turned up on the streets Wednesday in significant numbers for the first time. Some were hostile to journalists and foreigners. Two Associated Press correspondents and several other journalists were roughed up in Cairo. State TV had reported that foreigners were caught distributing anti-Mubarak leaflets, apparently trying to depict the movement as foreign-fueled.
After midnight, 10 hours after the clashes began, the two sides were locked in a standoff at a street corner, with the anti-Mubarak protesters hunkered behind a line of metal sheets hurling firebombs back and forth with government backers on the rooftop above. The rain of bottles of flaming gasoline set nearby cars and wreckage on the sidewalk ablaze.
The scenes of mayhem were certain to add to the fear that is already running high in this capital of 18 million people after a weekend of looting and lawlessness and the escape of thousands of prisoners from jails in the chaos.
Soldiers surrounding Tahrir Square fired occasional shots in the air throughout the day but did not appear to otherwise intervene in the fierce clashes and no uniformed police were seen. Most of the troops took shelter behind or inside the armored vehicles and tanks stationed at the entrances to the square.
“Why don’t you protect us?” some protesters shouted at the soldiers, who replied they did not have orders to do so and told people to go home.
“The army is neglectful. They let them in,” said Emad Nafa, a 52-year-old among the protesters, who for days had showered the military with affection for its neutral stance.
Some of the worst street battles raged near the Egyptian Museum at the edge of the square. Pro-government rioters blanketed the rooftops of nearby buildings and hurled bricks and firebombs onto the crowd below – in the process setting a tree ablaze inside the museum grounds. Plainclothes police at the building entrances prevented anti-Mubarak protesters from storming up to stop them.
The two sides pummeled each other with chunks of concrete and bottles at each of the six entrances to the sprawling plaza, where 10,000 anti-Mubarak protesters tried to fend off more than 3,000 attackers who besieged them. Some on the pro-government side waved machetes, while the square’s defenders filled the air with a ringing battlefield din by banging metal fences with sticks.
In one almost medieval scene, a small contingent of pro-Mubarak forces on horseback and camels rushed into the anti-government crowds, trampling several people and swinging whips and sticks. Protesters dragged some riders from their mounts, throwing them to the ground and beating their faces bloody. The horses and camels appeared to be ones used to give tourists rides around Cairo.
Dozens of men and women pried up pieces of the pavement with bars and ferried the piles of ammunition in canvas sheets to their allies at the front. Others directed fighters to streets needing reinforcements.
The protesters used a subway station as a makeshift prison for the attackers they managed to catch. They tied the hands and legs of their prisoners and locked them inside. People grabbed one man who was bleeding from the head, hit him with their sandals and threw him behind a closed gate.
Some protesters wept and prayed in the square where only a day before they had held a joyous, peaceful rally of a quarter-million, the largest demonstration so far.
Egyptian Health Minister Ahmed Sameh Farid said three people died and at least 611 were injured in Tahir Square. One of those killed fell from a bridge near the square; Farid said the man was in civilian clothes but may have been a member of the security forces.
Farid did not say how the other two victims, both young men, were killed. It was not clear whether they were government supporters or anti-Mubarak demonstrators.