Cairo: Protesters poised for Mubarak’s Day of Departure

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This report came in early Friday, however technical difficulties meant that Newsnet Scotland was unable to publish.  Our apologies to both our readers and of course to the brave journalist who drafted the report.

Central Cairo is on a knife-edge this morning.  Pro-Mubarak supporters seem to have fallen back and a questionably-aligned military has strengthened its presence around Tahrir square.  Hopes are building among the rallied, weary but still utterly defiant opposition that today is President Mubarak’s ‘Day of Departure’.

Yesterday’s fighting was on a smaller scale than the seemingly state-orchestrated butchery of Wednesday.  Over eight hours we watched running battles in the backstreets between pro and anti-Mubarak groups fought with the usual armoury: rocks, pipes, planks and metal bars.  A contingent of anti-Mubarak Muslim Brotherhood forced their opposition from a major artery leading on to the top of Tahrir.  Yelling ‘God is Great’, they bloodily scattered pro-Mubarak supporters far from the main rally and temporarily held an intersection before pulling back to consolidate.

North of Tahrir, the opposition finally got some assistance from the military in a pitched battle of projectiles against those holding the raised highway.  Pro-Mubarak men, raining fireworks, rocks and, it seemed, the occasional gunshot, were forced from the high ground by a combined tank advance and a sustained volley of rocks fed by a tightly organised supply chain.  It marked a shift of the main battles from Tahrir to the more northerly intersection of Abdel Monem Riyad Square.  We heard long bursts of automatic weapon fire from that direction into the evening.

Protesters reclaimed Qasr en-Nil bridge, the crucial point where they broke through last Friday to take the square. Now Midan Tahrir itself has become, in one occupant’s words, ‘an independent republic’.  Medical volunteers have set up makeshift hospitals for the legions of wounded.  Food and water are getting through, though stymied by the army’s fickle attitude to baggage checks and a string of opportunistic attacks by groups of thieves and recently reappeared uniformed police.  In the wee hours we heard rousing singing coming from the crowds.

Early this morning a series of tall, improvised barricades made of corrugated iron and piping have appeared at both ends of our trash and rock-strewn avenue. Spend too long near a window and lurking figures on the street begin to take note, gather their associates and point towards us. We’re under lockdown, reliant on a few locals to judge the safety of the streets as we venture out for supplies and to gauge the atmosphere.

It has become dangerous for journalists over the last day.  Along with ‘security’ round-ups of a number of high-profile reporters – 24 were reportedly detained in 24 hours – there has been a string of violent attacks by crowds on TV crews and photographers, seemingly fuelled by state-TV rumours about Israeli agents on the streets posing as journalists.  The most brutal was a knife-attack on a Swedish reporter, now in a critical condition.  Others faced baying mobs and made lucky escapes.

‘A mood of McCarthyism has taken hold,’ notes an Egyptian blogger.  All foreigners outside asking questions are suspect.  It’s hard to say how organised these pogroms are, although the government’s antipathy to the BBC and al-Jazeera’s detailed coverage of events on Tahrir is well known.  In any case, anger is rising and attitudes to protesters among non-aligned Egyptians starting to turn.  Ten days of economic inactivity have driven the Egyptian currency into the gutter and sent the cost of simple items skyrocketing.  For many, with Mubarak’s resignation set for September, enough is enough.

Hotels are no guarantee of protection.  Angry thugs besieged the Ramses Hilton, on the Nile to the west of the square and a base for international journalists.  Staff later called around rooms to confiscate broadcast equipment ‘for reasons of safety’.  Earlier rumours suggested a sniper on the roof of the Hilton although that hasn’t been followed up.

For now we sit and wait for what comes after Friday prayers.  Today looks to be yet another turning point.

‘We won’t leave until Mubarak does,’ said one protester in Midan Tahrir to me, nearly a week ago now.  They’ve kept their word so far.  The showdown of this battle of wills is on the way.

For reasons of his safety and protection, we have withheld the name of the author.