CAIRO — Several thousand supporters of President Hosni Mubarak, including some riding horses and camels and wielding whips, attacked anti-government protesters Wednesday as Egypt’s upheaval took a dangerous new turn. In chaotic scenes, the two sides pelted each other with stones, and protesters dragged attackers off their horses.
The hours of turmoil were the first significant violence between supporters of the two camps in more than a week of anti-government protests. It erupted after Mubarak went on national television the night before and rejected demands he step down immediately and said he would serve out the remaining seven months of his term.
Wednesday morning, a military spokesman appeared on state TV Wednesday and asked the protesters to disperse so life in Egypt could get back to normal. The announcement could mark a major turn in the attitude of the army, which for the past two days has allowed protests to swell, reaching their largest size yet on Tuesday when a quarter-million peacefully packed into Cairo’s central Tahrir Square.
Nearly 10,000 protesters massed again in Tahrir on Wednesday morning, rejecting Mubarak’s speech as too little too late and renewed their demands he leave immediately.
In the early afternoon Wednesday, an Associated Press reporter saw around 3,000 Mubarak supporters break through a human chain of anti-government protesters trying to defend thousands gathered in Tahrir.
Chaos erupted as they tore down banners denouncing the president. Fistfights broke out as they advanced across the massive square in the heart of the capital. The anti-government protesters grabbed Mubarak posters from the hands of the supporters and ripped them.
The two sides began hurling stones and bottles and sticks at each other, chasing each other as the protesters’ human chains moved back to try to shield the larger mass of demonstrators at the plaza’s center.
At one point, a small contingent of pro-Mubarak forces on horseback and camels rushed into the anti-Mubarak crowds, swinging whips and sticks to beat people. Protesters retaliated, dragging some from their mounts, throwing them to the ground and beating their faces bloody. The horses and camels likely were the ones used by touts giving rides for tourists.
Protesters were seen running with their shirts or faces bloodied, some men and women in the crowd were weeping. A scent of tear gas wafted over the area, but it was not clear who had fired it.
The army troops who have been guarding the square had been keeping the two sides apart earlier in the day, but when the clashes erupted they did not intervene. Most took shelter behind or inside the armored vehicles and tanks stationed at the entrances to Tahrir.
Many protesters – who for days have showered the military with love for its neutral stance – now accused the troops had intentionally allowed the attackers into the square. “Hosni has opened the door for these thugs to attack us,” one man with a loudspeaker shouted to the crowds during the fighting.
“These are paid thugs,” another protester, 52-year-old Emad Nafa, said of the attackers. “The army is neglectful. They let them in.”
The new tensions began to emerge immediately following Mubarak’s speech Tuesday night. Later in the night, clashes erupted between pro- and anti-government demonstrators in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, while in Cairo groups of Mubarak supporters took to the streets, some carrying knives and sticks.
Gatherings of Mubarak supporters have also taken a harsher tone against journalists and foreigners. Two Associated Press correspondents and several other journalists were roughed up during various such gatherings. State TV reported Tuesday night that foreigners were caught distributing anti-Mubarak leaflets, apparently trying to depict the movement as foreign-fueled.
The violence could represent a dangerous new chapter in the nearly 10 days of upheaval that has shaken Egypt, which has already taken a series of dramatic and unpredictable twists.
After years of tight state control, protesters emboldened by unrest in Tunisia took to the streets on Jan. 25 and mounted a once-unimaginable series of demonstrations across this nation of 80 million. Initially, police cracked down hard with brutal and deadly clashes on the demonstrators. Then police withdrew completely from the streets for the day, opening a wave of looting, armed robberies and arson – largely separate from the protests themselves – that stunned Egyptians.
But since Sunday, the army moved in to take control and the situation became more peaceful. The military announced it would not stop protests. As a result, the demonstrations swelled dramatically, protesters gained momentum and enthusiasm and many believed Mubarak’s immediate fall was at hand. The United States put intense pressure on Mubarak to bring his rule to an end while ensuring a stable handover.
Wednesday’s events could mean the regime has had enough, and that it and the military aim to ensure the end of the unrest after the 82-year-old Mubarak made the concession of announcing he would not run for a new six-year term in September elections.
As if to show the crisis was ending, the government began to reinstate Internet service after days of an unprecedented cutoff, and state TV announced the easing of a nighttime curfew, which now runs from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. instead of 3 p.m. to 8 a.m.
Mubarak supporters were on the street in significant numbers for the first time on Wednesday. Across the Nile River from the chaos in Tahrir Square, around 20,000 pro-government demonstrators held a rally in front of Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque in the upper-class neighborhood of Mohandiseen.
They waved Egyptian flags, their faces painted with the black-white-and-red national colors, and carried a large printed banner with Mubarak’s face as police officers surrounded the area and directed traffic. They cheered as a military helicopter swooped overhead.
Many said they came after seeing a notice on state television to attend the protest. Some appeared to be the sort of young toughs that the opposition accuses the regime of paying to be its fist in the streets.
But the large majority were middle-class families, some of whom said Mubarak’s concessions were enough and that they feared continued instability and shortages of food and other supplies if protests continue.
“I want the people in Tahrir Square to understand that Mubarak gave his word that he will give them the country to them through elections, peacefully, now they have no reason for demonstrations,” said Ali Mahmoud, 52, who identified himself as middle-class worker from Menoufia, a Nile Delta province north of Cairo.
The movement against Mubarak, meanwhile, was working to prevent any slipping in its ranks after the speech and resist any sentiment that the concession may have been enough.
“We recognize deceit when we see it,” said protester Nasser Saad Abdel-Latif. “No one will lose their energy … We won’t go until he goes.”
One protest organizer said the regime was going all out to pressure people to stop protesting.
“Starting with the emotional speech of Mubarak, to the closure of banks, the shortage of food and commodities and deployment of thugs to intimidate people, these are all means to put pressure on the people,” said Ahmed Abdel-Hamid, a representative of the Revolutionary Committee, one of several youth groups that organized the protests.
The movement is fueled by deep frustration with an autocratic regime blamed for ignoring the needs of the poor and allowing corruption and official abuse to run rampant. Tuesday’s massive rally in Tahrir showed a large cross-section of Egyptian society.
In his 10-minute speech Tuesday night, Mubarak hit on one of the themes that has been his evocative for some Egyptians in justifying his rule throughout his nearly three decades in power – that he can keep stability. Now he was promising to do so as he heads out the door.
The president, who almost never admits to reversing himself under pressure, insisted that even if the protests demanding his ouster had not broken out, he would not have sought a sixth term in September.
Somber but firm – without an air of defeat – he said he would serve out the rest of his term working “to accomplish the necessary steps for the peaceful transfer of power.” He said he will carry out amendments to rules on presidential elections.
He vowed he would not flee the country. “This is my dear homeland,” he said. “I have lived in it, I fought for it and defended its soil, sovereignty and interests. On its soil I will die. History will judge me and all of us.”
The step came after heavy pressure from his top ally, the United States. Soon after Mubarak’s address, President Barack Obama said at the White House that he had spoken with Mubarak and “he recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and a change must take place.” Obama said he told Mubarak that an orderly transition must be meaningful and peaceful, must begin now and must include opposition parties.
Earlier, a visiting Obama envoy – former ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner, who is a friend of the Egyptian president – met with Mubarak and made clear to him that it is the U.S. “view that his tenure as president is coming to a close,” according to an administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the ongoing diplomacy.