article

02.02.11

Egypt Revolt: The Violent Scene in Tahrir Square

Today, Mubarak supporters appeared from seemingly out of nowhere, viciously attacking protesters with rocks, machetes, and even camels. Babak Dehghanpisheh on the chaos engulfing the city.

Today, Mubarak supporters appeared from seemingly out of nowhere, viciously attacking protesters with rocks, machetes, and even camels. Babak Dehghanpisheh on the chaos engulfing the city. Plus, read our full coverage of the uprising in Egypt.

The change of atmosphere in Cairo couldn’t be more dramatic. Last night, protesters in Tahrir Square were peacefully strumming guitars and chanting anti-government slogans. Tonight, the square is a warzone. Gunshots ring out regularly and Molotov cocktails fly through the air. Small fires have broken out next to the Egyptian Museum, home to the country's most prized antiquities, and a building directly across from it.

Gallery: Demonstrations in Egypt

As Egypt's protests stretched into their ninth day, with demonstrators calling for President Hosni Mubarak to end his three-decade reign and Western leaders voicing ever-louder support for them, any hope that this revolution might take place relatively peacefully was abruptly extinguished. Pro-Mubarak crowds clashed with the opposition in a day of escalating violence, and the official government toll for the day stood at three dead and over 600 wounded. (Al-Jazeera puts the injured at more than 1,500 and reports that the square is, for now, still in control of the protesters.) Among those beaten were CNN's Anderson Cooper and Lara Setrakian of ABC News. Several others journalists reported being attacked with sticks and fists. A number of photographers and cameramen had their equipment destroyed.

This is the pushback. In a dramatic speech last night, Mubarak said he would not run as a candidate in the elections coming up in the fall. But perhaps equally important, he called on judicial authorities to “continue pursuing outlaws and to investigate those who caused the security disarray.” The army, which in recent days had appeared to side with protesters, now urged them to go home. The events today were anything but the “orderly transition” that President Barack Obama had requested from Mubarak.

Video screenshot

Pro-Mubarak rallies popped up at nearly every entrance around Tahrir Square this morning around 10 a.m. One crowd of approximately 100 people gathered around the statue in the center of the nearby Talaat Harb square. They held Egyptian flags and pictures of Mubarak and chanted, “Yes, yes Mubarak.” Conspicuously, a handful of men in plainclothes on the fringes of the gathering had earpieces with wires winding into their jackets, suggesting they may have been policemen or other security reps out of uniform.

It became increasingly clear that the pro-Mubarak crowd was itching for a fight when they called for their supporters to rally at the Mustafa Mahmoud mosque in the Mohandiseen area around 1 p.m. An announcer on one state-run radio station made an emotional plea for the president’s supporters to come out en masse. Several thousand people showed up at the mosque within the hour and began marching toward Tahrir Square. Clashes there had already begun: Thousands of supporters from both sides hurled rocks and bottles at each other as the army sat on the sidelines. Others charged each other with machetes and sticks.

Thousands of supporters from both sides hurled rocks and bottles at each other as the army sat on the sidelines.

Then things got bizarre. A group of men on horses and camels plowed through the crowd and began whipping anyone that got in their way. Some of the riders were dragged off their horses and beaten to a pulp by the crowd. There were rumors that the “camel charge,” as one journalist dubbed it, was led by touts from the Giza pyramids who were upset about the downturn in their business. The clashes only got uglier as the day progressed. Shortly after nightfall, a handful of Mubarak supporters unleashed a barrage of rocks and Molotov cocktails on anti-government protesters at the far west end of Tahrir Square. The army fired shots in the air but, again, refused to intervene.

Near midnight, several hundred anti-government protesters hunkered down in the center of Tahrir Square. They had fought hard to wrest control of the square from riot police last Friday, and today’s clashes made it clear that they’re not going to give up any of the territory, or their demands, without a fight.

Babak Dehghanpisheh was named Newsweek’s Baghdad Bureau Chief in December 2006. He has been covering Iraq regularly for the past five years.