CAIRO, Egypt — Menacing gangs backing President Hosni Mubarak attacked journalists and human rights activists Thursday in an ugly turn in Egypt’s crisis as government opponents pushed supporters out of Cairo’s main square in a second day of battles. Organizers called for protesters trying to topple the regime to fill every square in the huge capital on Friday.
The new vice-president, widely considered the first successor Mubarak has ever designated, fueled anti-foreign sentiment by going on state television and blaming outsiders for fomenting unrest. The government has accused media outlets of being sympathetic to protesters who want the president to quit now rather than serve out his term, as he has vowed to do.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, was in talks with top Egyptian officials about the possibility of Mubarak immediately resigning and the formation of an interim government that could prepare the country for free and fair elections later this year, U.S. officials said Thursday. The talks were first reported by The New York Times.
The creation of a military-backed caretaker government in Egypt is one of several ideas being discussed as anti-Mubarak protests escalate in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomatic talks that are continuing.
White House and State Department spokesmen would not discuss details of the discussions U.S. officials are having with the Egyptians.
“The president has said that now is the time to begin a peaceful, orderly and meaningful transition,” said White House national security spokesman Tommy Vietor on Thursday night. “We have discussed with the Egyptians a variety of different ways to move that process forward.”
Mubarak, 82, told ABC television in an interview that he was fed up and wants to resign. But he said he can’t for fear the country would sink into chaos. He said he was very unhappy about the two days of clashes in central Tahrir Square.
“I do not want to see Egyptians fighting each other,” he was quoted as saying.
The violence that had been concentrated in Tahrir spread around the city of 18 million, with a new wave of arson and looting.
Soldiers, mainly protecting government buildings and important institutions, remained passive as they have since replacing police on the streets almost a week ago. Few uniformed police have been seen around the city in that time, and protesters allege some of them have stripped off their uniforms and mixed in with the gangs of marauding thugs.
“When there are demonstrations of this size, there will be foreigners who come and take advantage and they have an agenda to raise the energy of the protesters,” Vice-President Omar Suleiman said on state television.
Pro-government mobs beat foreign journalists with sticks and fists Thursday. The Committee to Protect Journalists said 24 reporters were detained in 24 hours, including representatives of The Washington Post and The New York Times. Twenty-one journalists were assaulted, including two with Fox News.
One Greek journalist was stabbed in the leg with a screwdriver, and a photographer was punched in the face, his equipment smashed. The Arabic news network Al-Arabiya pleaded for the army to protect its offices and journalists, and Al-Jazeera said four of its correspondents were attacked. The BBC’s foreign editor said security forces had seized the network’s equipment in a hotel to stop it broadcasting.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs denounced reports of “systematic targeting” of journalists and the State Department described it as a “concerted campaign to intimidate.”
“I think we need to be clear that the world is watching the actions that are taking place right now in Egypt,” Gibbs said.
Human rights activists were also targeted. Military police stormed the offices of an Egyptian rights group as activists were meeting and arrested at least 30, including two from the London-based Amnesty International, Amnesty spokesman Tom Mackey said. New York-based Human Rights Watch said one of its activists was also among those arrested.
Amnesty’s secretary-general Salil Shetty demanded their immediate release saying they should be allowed “to monitor the human rights situation in Egypt at this crucial time without fear of harassment or detention.”
Mubarak’s top ally, the United States, has pressed him to quickly transition to a democratic government but has said his earlier gestures, including forming a new government, were insufficient.
The crisis that began on Jan. 25 when protesters launched the biggest challenge ever to Mubarak’s 30-year rule has grown perilous. The day after Mubarak went on television late Tuesday and refused to step down, thousands of his supporters attacked anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square, where they had held a peaceful vigil for days.
The Mubarak supporters started fierce battles with firebombs, machetes and chunks of pavement that lasted throughout the night and all day Thursday.
After nightfall, the fighting died down with protesters’ hold on the square and nearby streets unbroken. Nearly 10,000 remained, some dancing and singing in victory as others — battered and bandaged — lay down exhausted to sleep or drank tea in the centre of the rubble-strewn roundabout. Throughout the day, they gained in numbers and got supplies of food and medicine.
“Thank God, we managed to protect the whole area,” said Abdul-Rahman, a taxi driver who was among thousands who stayed in the square through the night, hunkered down against the thousands besieging the entrances. “We prevented the pro-Mubarak people from storming the streets leading to the square.” He refused to give his full name.
At least eight people have been killed and about 900 injured in the two days of fighting around Tahrir.
Many of the square’s defenders had cotton padding and grubby bandages dangling from their faces, arms and legs. Others had chunks of rock stuck to their hair and clumps of dust in their beards. Many had the trimmed beards of Muslim conservatives, a sign of the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in the fight. The Brotherhood is the country’s largest opposition group but secular groups have led the protests.
Under an onslaught of international condemnation for Wednesday’s assault on protesters by pro-Mubarak rioters, the government offered more concessions to the protesters, but that did nothing to calm the fury.
The anti-Mubarak movement has vowed to intensify protests to force the president out by Friday. The Facebook page that started the protest movement said supporters should gather at noon Friday on all Egyptian squares “so that we can put the last nail in the regime’s coffin, and declare the victory of the Jan. 25 revolution.” Friday is the weekend in Egypt and millions attend prayers at noon in thousands of mosques across the city.
Last Friday, there were fierce clashes between protesters and police after prayers. The hated police largely disappeared from the streets of Cairo after the clashes for reasons that remain mysterious. Mubarak, his new vice-president and prime minister all promised to get to the bottom of their disappearance.
The attorney-general indicated that the former interior minister, Habib el-Adly, who was in charge of the police force when they left the streets, is a suspect in the investigation. He ordered an asset freeze and travel ban against el-Adly and the former housing and tourism ministers, who were among the unpopular millionaire businessmen who dominated the government Mubarak dissolved early Saturday.
In the capital on Thursday, a new wave of looting and arson began, after easing since the weekend. A fire raged in a major supermarket outside Sheikh Zayed, a suburb of the capital, and looters ransacked the building. A residential building neighbouring a 5-star hotel on the Nile River corniche burned blocks away from Tahrir. Other fires erupted in the Cairo district of Shubra, north of the centre, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The military and the security forces appeared to be doing little to stop the looting or the Tahrir clashes. In the interview, Suleiman said without elaborating that the police had “lost some of its capabilities” and that the army was struggling to fill the void.
Protesters accuse the regime and the ruling party of organizing a force of paid thugs and police in civilian clothes to attack them Wednesday afternoon, sparking the violence that raged until Thursday night.
The prime minister apologized for Wednesday’s assault and acknowledged it may have been organized, though he said he didn’t know by whom. Suleiman promised that Mubarak’s son Gamal would not run in presidential elections in September. Before the protests, Mubarak was widely expected to try to pass his power to his son in a hereditary succession, despite significant public opposition.
Suleiman also offered to hold negotiations on the country’s future even with the regime’s biggest domestic enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood. But he also accused the Brotherhood of inciting the violence.
Mubarak’s regime has long rejected any talks with the Brotherhood, which calls for an Islamic state in Egypt, and has arrested thousands of its members in the past. The Brotherhood is among the many disparate anti-Mubarak groups organizing the protests, though secular activists have so far dominated the movement. All have rejected any dialogue with the government before Mubarak steps down.
The government’s latest concessions would have been stunning just two weeks ago. But on Thursday they were drowned out by the chaos.
“Hosni Mubarak’s every breath is a lie,” said Assem Moussa, a 40-year-old businessman among the protesters. “All the promises and the concessions are part of the lies. He is trying to deceive the people.”
Moussa pulled a white cloth out of his pocket, saying, “This is my funeral shroud. If I die here, I will die for our freedom.”
During Thursday’s fighting, bands of Mubarak supporters moved through side streets around Tahrir, trading volleys of stone-throwing with the protesters and attacking cars to stop supplies from reaching the protest camp. One band stopped a car, ripped open the trunk and found boxes of juice, water and food, which they took before forcing the driver to flee.
Fighting centred on and below a highway overpass 500 yards (meters) north of Tahrir’s centre that regime supporters had used as high ground to pelt the crowds. Protesters swept over the bridge in stone-throwing battles.
At one point, a police truck barreled wildly through the crowds under the bridge, mowing down several people in its path, according to footage aired on Al-Jazeera. Heavy barrages of gunfire were heard from time to time.
The morning saw a brief attempt by the military to stop the fighting — its first since the melee started Wednesday. But the troops stood aside when clashes resumed in the afternoon, moving inside their tanks and armoured vehicles without intervening.
The Mubarak backers seethed with anger at a protest movement that state TV and media have depicted as causing the chaos and paralyzing businesses and livelihoods.
“You in Tahrir are the reason we can’t live a normal life,” one screamed as he threw stones in a side street.
The anti-Mubarak youths posted sentries on the roofs and balconies of buildings around the square to raise the alert of any approaching attackers and rain stones on them. Other lookouts in the streets banged metal poles against pedestrian barriers alarm when they sighted incoming Mubarak backers.
One sentry waved his arms in the air like an airport runway traffic controller, directing defenders carrying piles of stones as ammunition to a side street to fend off an assault. But then another sentry waved a hand across his chest horizontally in a new signal. The crowd understood: false alarm, and they melted back into the square.
An exodus of foreigners, meanwhile, continued for another day with the U.N. evacuating much of its staff. The vice-president said 1 million foreign tourists have fled the country, costing $1 billion in lost revenues from one of Egypt’s most important industries.
AP correspondents Hadeel al-Shalchi, Sarah El Deeb, Hamza Hendawi, Diaa Hadid, Lee Keath and Michael Weissenstein contributed to this report.