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Cairo’s central Tahrir Square
It started just after midday with a comment from a man in his 40s striding beside our taxi along Cairo’s traffic-clogged raised highway. “Mubarak – yes! Mubarak – yes!”
After nine days of fierce protest against the government we thought it was a black joke. But by the next morning after the unleashing of violent pro-Mubarak crowds, central Cairo was in a state of near-anarchy with over a thousand injured and at least a handful killed.
Yesterday as we edged closer by foot to the museum and the northern edge of Tahrir square, the man’s phrase was echoed by hundreds more congregating on the Ramses intersection. Men and some women brandished brand new Egyptian flags and pieces of paper printed with messages praising the President who had, just 10 hours before, announced his intention not to stand for re-election in September.
This new pro-Mubarak crowd surged along the top side of the square. Stocky men on scooters buzzed around the streets shouting. I turned to one marcher who carried a glossy A3 of the incumbent. “You like Mubarak?” I asked neutrally. “Yes! Yes!” he bellowed back.
We took the backstreets of downtown, circled a few dozen strong pro-Mubarak supporters on an intersection. Already we heard shouts ahead and saw a ragged frontline facing off against the pro-democracy protesters who’d been holding Midan Tahrir for nearly a week. Shouts rang out. Men ran back and forth, regrouped next to Talaat Harb street’s shuttered shops and travel agencies. Some held iron rods, others lengths of wood. Passers-by cowered in doorways.
It was becoming clear – Egyptian was fighting Egyptian and this stretch of road was the fiercely contested no-man’s land between the several-thousands strong anti-government presence and this mysterious, newly-formed crowd. Some had infiltrated the square despite the army’s presence and civilian checkpoints. Others were trying to escape Tahrir, meld with the other side and head to safety.
A young man in glasses ran up to us. “They are thugs, all these men are thugs and they’ve been paid by the government to fight us,” he shouted. A mob gathered around, shouting denials and bundled him off. We took cover by the entrance of a traveller’s hostel. “This country is at war now,” said a man in late middle-age, repeating the allegation these were hired thugs.
On Muhammed Bassiyuny street a mob was gathering rocks, hunkering at an intersection, then sprinting forward and hurling them towards Tahrir. “No photos! No photos!” they shouted at a camera-lugging friend who ran rings around them.
A lanky man in his 30s ran up to us. “We need Mubarak,” he pleaded, tears in his eyes. “Who will look after my mother, my wife? How do I go to work? We need money. We want peace.” I heard later this mantra was being repeated all over the capital to the media. He offered his mobile number for further comments, a one man public relations outfit.
Already we doubted the motives of much of the crowd. Many looked uncomfortably familiar from the previous week, too much like the plain clothes security who had brutally attacked protesters. Dozens of flags were being distributed, flyers and posters were clearly mass-produced.
The same few talking points were being recycled: anti-Mubarak crowds were trying to destroy the country, ruining property and the economy. It’s true, many Egyptians are now ready to accept an end to protests following government concessions. The fear of instability is real. But the description of the anti-Mubarak crowds had little basis in reality. They were describing the very same people who had tried peaceful protest, who welcomed cameramen, not scurried away from them.
The backstreets seemed to be a gathering point, where these shadowy men grabbed their improvised weapons. They smashed paving slabs into smaller rocks, climbed scaffolding to remove metal bars. It was here they also regrouped, licked their wounds and took their orders. I saw senior figures use the gestures of traffic police to redistribute the hundred or so men on the two fronts. I heard high-pitched whistles used to signal advance and retreat.
A group of burly, ill-humoured men, suspicious of our presence, tried to lead us down a sidestreet and we refused. Later in the day we heard of a spate of attacks on journalists, cameras being snatched and smashed. Unlike the protesters in the square, these thugs wanted no witnesses.
We got a vantage point over several entrances to Tahrir square. Already we could hear the thumps and shouts – later we read of savage attacks by thugs on horse and camelback. Mobs hauled bloodied figures in front of them, captured protesters from the square. They beat some more, baying. Others were hauled off out of sight. We caught the odd sight of burka-clad figures behind pro-Mubarak lines. Only later did we discover they were disguises for men to get past security into the square.
Parts of Midan Tahrir were already being taken – retaken, rather, for the violent battles were instigated but what were almost certainly government security in another form. The first gunshots rang out, a warning from the military who were standing by and powerless, or perhaps unwilling, to intervene. Military choppers thumped overhead, constantly circling. A few hundred at most on the eastern side of the square, the pro-Mubarak fighters were being pushed back to the intersections, seemingly unable to cope with opposing numbers. A half-km away on that raised highway, the horizon was darkened by what looked like a large, immobile crowd.
Things stepped up as evening fell. We saw molotovs being lobbed, further rains of rocks and fires up towards the Egyptian museum. Barricades were being set up and hammered upon in a Zulu-esque show of psychological warfare. We heard bursts of fire from automatic weaponry a few blocks away.
Stories were coming in of bloody losses from the square. Attackers had climbed surrounding buildings and were hurling rocks and petrol bombs. On our street, an armoured personnel carrier thundered past, smashing a roadside tree into a contorted angle. Then what sounded like gunfire at street level and we hunkered down.
Here, as in many places across Cairo, neighbourhood committees were standing guard on apartment buildings, shops and parked cars. If anyone advanced too quickly on their turf, a shout would come and a figure wielding a stick or iron rod would threaten brutal reprisal. In this way, a sliver of peace was kept.
The battle around the Museum was still raging. Gradually the anti-Mubarak group forced their attackers back. More shots rang out. By 11pm, things were quieter. Reports came in that most of the square had been reconquered by the anti-Mubarak crowd with fighting now on the edges. A metro station was being used as a holding cell for captured pro-Mubarak fighters. Police and security ID was found and others admitted they had been paid. Some said they had been bussed in from outlying towns.
Figures were coming in, some 1,500 injured and at least three dead. We got some uneasy sleep, broken at 5am by further gunfire. Two more had been killed.
The message seems clear. After Mubarak’s climbdown last night, there will be bloody payback for those who continue to oppose him.