CAIRO, February 3 (JMCC) - Thousands of people armed with machetes, sticks, knives and Molotov cocktails encircled Cairo’s Tahrir square Wednesday and clashed with anti-government protesters calling for the deposition of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Pro-government protesters shouted, “Yes! Yes! Yes! Mubarak!” Clashes began with rock-throwing between the two sides but quickly deteriorated into violent bludgeoning and the launching of petrol bombs. Automatic rifle fire could be heard. By late night, counts of the wounded had reached more than 800.
“If you have any way of sending ambulances, please. Please,” said doctor Sharif Omar on the phone from Tahrir square. “We are out on the streets, there are hundreds down.”
Another doctor shouts, “Please tell the world police and thugs are hitting us! I am trying to help these people. People are falling everywhere.”
The mosque near the square has doubled as a rudimentary medical clinic for the last week of protests. Casualties with blood streaming down their shirts, many from severe head wounds, were rushed in and laid on prayer mats as the clashes began. By the evening, doctors were treating people outside.
The military has had a visible presence on the streets of Cairo, but Wednesday they did little to stop the violence. At a demonstration of hundreds of thousands on Tuesday,
Egyptian soldiers frisked demonstrators for weapons as they passed the tanks. But Wednesday afternoon, pro-Mubarak supporters were able to charge the crowd on horseback.
The army’s lack of intervention caused anger among some.
“The army isn’t doing anything,” says Ahmed Saleh, 23. “I told you the other day they were only guarding the important places, now they are guarding the people that are with Mubarak. Because the army is with Mubarak, of course.”
Anti-government protesters say that the violence was orchestrated - that many in the pro-Mubarak camp were secret police following government orders.
The ministry of the interior denied police involvement. However, at least one protest did not have a spontaneous feel. Everyone held the same A4 color print of a young president Mubarak - remarkable given that the demonstration was meant to be a spontaneous reaction to Mubarak’s speech late the night before.
Like some, Saleh had stopped protesting when Mubarak announced Tuesday night that he would step down before the next election. But he said he had been told that Wednesday’s clashes were orchestrated. “A friend said some people in normal clothes approached others and gave them money to attack Tahrir square, telling them these people are not Egyptian.”
Other eyewitnesses say security forces gave young men 50 Egyptian pounds to attack.
“They are everywhere,” says a key opposition organizer who was nabbed by three men but managed to get away from the police station. “They infiltrated our demonstrations and pretended to be one of us. Now many of the key faces of the opposition movement have disappeared from here.”
The pro-government demonstrators, invisible over the previous week of protests, were galvanized Wednesday after Mubarak made his greatest concessions to anti-government protesters.
“The change comes after his speech,” says Saleh. “People simply don’t want Egypt to suffer more. A lot of changes have been made over the past week. I have been in a demonstration for six days - now I have to continue with life.”
Returning to the hotel, more scenes appeared staged. In front of a police car, people began to praise Mubarak . Their movements were awkward, checking with each other if they were saying the right thing. Banners were pushed in reporters faces until they were photographed.
“He is a good man. He has ruled this country well and created security. Now things must get back to normal,” said a man in a red and white head scarf. He followed three journalists, including JMCC.org’s correspondent, as they walked. When the journalists passed a police official, he shouted and eight men in leather jackets emerged from nowhere and steered us to the policeman, al-Barediri Hashem. The journalists were told to write down what he said: “Mubarak is a man of peace. There won’t be security if Mubarak goes.”