CAIRO, Egypt — Supporters of President Hosni Mubarak charged into Cairo’s central square on horseback and camels brandishing whips while others rained firebombs from rooftops in what appeared to be an orchestrated assault against anti-government protesters trying to topple Egypt’s leader of 30 years. Three people died and at least 600 were injured in the uncontrolled violence.
The protesters accused Mubarak’s regime of unleashing paid thugs and plainclothes police to crush their unprecedented, 9-day-old movement demanding his ouster, 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 co-ordinated violence against protesters, who had kept a peaceful vigil in Tahrir Square for five days, prompted one of the sharpest rebukes yet 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 sharp blow to the protesters. They were also a signal to a country that had been holding its breath to see if Mubarak would fall that authorities want to turn back the clock to the tight state control enforced before last Tuesday.
In the wake of Mubarak’s speech, his 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 reported Tuesday night that foreigners were caught distributing anti-Mubarak leaflets, apparently trying to depict the movement as foreign-fuelled.
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 rampant looting and lawlessness and the escape of thousands of prisoners from jails in the chaos.
A light army presence that has surrounded Tahrir Square for days fired shots in the air throughout the clashes but did appear to otherwise intervene and no uniformed police were seen. Most of the troops took shelter behind or inside the armoured vehicles and tanks stationed at the entrances to the square.
“Why don’t you protect us?” some shouted at 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.
After midnight, ten hours after the clashes began, the two sides were locked into 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.
Some of the worst street battles raged near the famed 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 pummelled each other with chunks of concrete and bottles at each of the six entrances to the sprawling plaza, where the 10,000 anti-Mubarak protesters tried to fend off the 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 crowds, trampling several people and swinging whips and sticks. Protesters dragged some from their mounts, throwing them to the ground and beating their faces bloody. The horses and camels appeared to be ones used by the many touts around Cairo who sell rides for tourists.
Dozens of men and women pried up the 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. Entrances to a subway station under the square were turned into impromptu prisons, with seized attackers tied up and held at the bottom of the stairs.
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.
After years of tight state control, protesters emboldened by the uprising in Tunisia took to the streets on Jan. 25 and mounted a once-unimaginable series of demonstrations across this nation of 80 million. For the past few days, protesters who camped out in Tahrir Square, reveled in a sense of freedom that they almost never enjoy — publicly expressing their hatred for the Mubarak regime.
“After our revolution, they want to send people here to ruin it for us,” said Ahmed Abdullah, a 47-year-old lawyer in the square.
Another man shrieked through a loudspeaker: “Hosni has opened the door for these thugs to attack us.”
The pressure for demonstrators to clear the square mounted throughout the day, beginning early when a military spokesman appeared on state TV and asked them to disperse so life in Egypt could get back to normal.
It was a change in attitude by the army, which for the past few days had allowed protests to swell with no interference and even made a statement saying they had a legitimate right to demonstrate peacefully.
Then the regime began to rally its supporters in significant numbers for the first time, demanding an end to the unprecedented protest movement. Some 20,000 held an angry but mostly peaceful rally across the Nile River from Tahrir, after notices on state TV calling for attendance.
They said Mubarak’s concessions were enough. He has promised not to run for re-election in September, named a new government and appointed a vice-president for the first time, widely considered his designated successor.
They waved Egyptian flags, their faces painted with the black-white-and-red national colours, 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.
They were bitter at the jeers hurled at Mubarak.
“I feel humiliated,” said Mohammed Hussein, a 31-year-old factory worker. “He is the symbol of our country. When he is insulted, I am insulted.”
Sayyed Ramadan, a clothing vendor said: “Eight days with no security, safety, food or drink. I earn my living day by day. The president didn’t do anything. It is shame that we call him a dog.”
Emad Fathi, 35, works as a delivery boy but since the demonstrations, he has not gone to work.
“I came here to tell these people to leave,” he said. “The mosques were calling on people to go and support Mubarak,” he said.
Having the rival sides on the streets is particularly worrying because there do not appear to be anywhere near enough police or military to control resurgent violence.
And the anti-Mubarak movement has vowed to intensify protests to force him out by Friday.
In the evening, state TV said Vice-President Omar Suleiman called “on the youth to heed the armed forces’ call and return home to restore order.”
From the other side, senior anti-Mubarak figure Mohamed ElBaradei demanded the military “intervene immediately and decisively to stop this massacre.”
Protesters have maintained a round-the-clock, peaceful vigil in Tahrir since Friday night, when the military was first deployed and police largely vanished from the streets. After celebrating their biggest success yet in drawing a quarter-million to the square on Tuesday, a gloom moved through the crowds and they thinned out overnight. By morning, a few thousand protesters remained in the square.
Mubarak supporters began to gather at the edges of the plaza a little after noon, and protesters formed a human chain to keep them out. In the early afternoon, around 3,000 pro-government demonstrators broke through and surged among the protesters, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene.
They tore down banners denouncing the president, fistfights broke out, and protesters grabbed Mubarak posters from the hands of the supporters and ripped them to pieces.
From there, it escalated into street battles as hundreds poured in to join each side.
The battle lines at each of the six entrances surged back and forth repeatedly for hours. Each side’s fighters stretched across the width of the four-lane divided boulevard, hiding behind abandoned trucks and holding sheets of corrugated metal as shields from the hail of stones.
At the heart of the square, young men with microphones sought to keep up morale. Stand fast, reinforcements are on the way,“ said one. ”Youth of Egypt, be brave.“ Groups of men in the beards of conservative Muslims lined up to recite prayers before taking their turn in the line of fire.
The health minister announced one dead — a person in civilian clothes who may have been a policeman fell off a nearby bridge — and nearly 600 injured. Bloodied young men staggered or were carried into makeshift clinics set up in mosques and alleyways by the anti-government side.
Women and men stood back with water, medical cotton and bandages ready as each wave returned, some with bloodied faces or shirts. Scores of wounded were carried to a makeshift clinic at a mosque near the square and on other side streets, staffed by doctors in white coats. One man with blood coming out of his eye stumbled into a side-street clinic.
The protesters used a metro station as a makeshift prison for those 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.
As night fell, some protesters went to get food, a sign they plan to dig in for a long siege. Hundreds more people from the impoverished district of Shubra showed up later as reinforcements.
The day’s events could herald a dangerous new chapter after a series of dramatic and unpredictable twists in Egypt’s upheaval.
Initially, police cracked down hard with deadly assaults 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 suggest the regime aims to put an end of the unrest to let Mubarak shape the transition as he choses over the next months. Mubarak has offered negotiations with protest leaders over democratic reforms, but they have refused any talks until he goes.
As if to show the public the crisis was ending, the government began to reinstate Internet service after days of an unprecedented cutoff. 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.