CAIRO – Whipped up by state television and spoiling for a fight, thousands of supporters of President Hosni Mubarak flooded into the center of Egypt’s capital Wednesday, sparking violent clashes that shifted the momentum in a political confrontation that has gripped the region and the world.
By late afternoon, they were engaged in a pitched battle with Mubarak’s opponents on a street alongside the Egyptian Museum, while the army mostly stood by. The president’s supporters fueled the showdown with a charge by men riding camels and horses, wielding whips and clubs. Both sides then went at it with rocks, sticks and firebombs.
The violence came after the army had urged pro-democracy demonstrators to go home, saying Mubarak’s pledge the previous night to hand over power this fall showed that their voices had been heard. The coordinated nature of Wednesday’s events suggested that his supporters were determined to show, as Mubarak had warned, that the country faced a “choice between chaos and stability.”
In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called the violence “outrageous and deplorable” and warned that if any of it was “instigated by the government, it should stop immediately.” Mubarak’s opponents said they would not back down from their quest to force him from office.
But Mubarak loyalists seemed to be pushing back with new vigor. Omar Suleiman, the new vice president, said there would be no dialogue with the opposition until the protests stopped, while Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said that calls from Washington and other capitals for Mubarak’s swift exit were intended to “incite the internal situation” in the country.
Hospitals reported that three people had been killed and more than 600 injured in the clashes. Many other wounded were taken to a makeshift first-aid center, set up in a nearby mosque. At one point in the evening, dozens of ambulances waited near the edges of the confrontation, but doctors said they were having difficulty getting access to the wounded.
Mubarak’s supporters, seemingly energized by his announcement Tuesday, essentially laid siege to Tahrir Square, where for nine days protesters calling for the president’s ouster have claimed the attention of Egypt, the Middle East and the rest of the world.
Anchors on state-run television heavily promoted the “pro-stability” rally, and buses and trucks dropped off loads of government backers at sites downtown. The owners of a factory said they had been told by the ruling National Democratic Party to mobilize their workers for the demonstration, a move that has been a standard practice here for decades. Many who took to the streets appeared to have come prepared for the vicious fight that ensued.
The Internet, which had been cut off for most of the past week, came back on in late morning; some anti-government demonstrators suspected that it was used to help coordinate the counter-rally. The night before, the army had sent text messages to Egyptians calling on them to protect their country from destruction.
Pro-democracy demonstrators alleged that their foes were paid to take to the streets by the ruling party, by the police or by wealthy businessmen with deep ties to the government. All of those elements, the protesters say, are sufficiently desperate to take extreme measures.
The Interior Ministry denied the accusation, and interviews with those who turned out in favor of Mubarak suggested that they genuinely support him.
The Obama administration avoided accusing Mubarak’s government of directly authorizing the attacks, but one senior administration official in Washington described the onslaught as “classic ruling-party behavior.”
The thousands of Mubarak supporters who participated were boisterous and aggressive. Frequent chants attacked pro-democracy leader Mohamed ElBaradei as an American puppet, and al-Jazeera, the satellite television network based in Qatar, as a tool of Iran. Journalists who were thought to be working for al-Jazeera were threatened or roughed up.
But their dedication to the cause didn’t seem to match that of their opponents; as the evening wore on, their numbers dwindled sharply. The battle diminished, and the anti-Mubarak protesters continued to occupy the square.
Some Mubarak supporters praised him as the father of the nation and said they couldn’t imagine Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, without him. “We’re behind you whatever you say, wherever you go,” said one sign.
But others offered a more complicated motivation. Gamal Abu el-Ela said he sympathized with the anti-government protesters. “But this uprising has succeeded and delivered its message,” he said. “We want freedom and transparent elections, but now we have to give the ruling party the chance to implement this reform.”
And some were touched by Mubarak’s avowal, in his Tuesday night address, that he would die in Egypt. Gamal Hamzan, an emergency room doctor at Kasr El Aini Hospital, said that Mubarak, 82, is an old man and that it is un-Egyptian to insult the elderly.
Just after 1 p.m., Mubarak supporters, who had been pouring into the center of Cairo since late morning, rushed through security checkpoints that had been set up by protesters at Tahrir Square. They chanted pro-Mubarak slogans and pushed forward. Pro-democracy demonstrators nearby held up a sign that read “Welcome to Martyrs’ Square,” in a nod to the more than 150 people who had been killed in the past nine days.
The scene quickly turned violent as the two camps confronted each other. Supporters of the government, some carrying sticks, threw rocks into the crowd of their rivals, who threw rocks back as people rushed in every direction.
Women and children ran for cover. A teenage boy carrying koshari, a traditional Egyptian dish, was beaten for taking food to critics of Mubarak.
Eventually, members of the military fired into the air to disperse the crowd. Two military vehicles were used to separate the demonstrators, but rock-throwing continued.
In the evening darkness, gasoline bombs came dropping down from the roof of an 11-story building across the street from the Egyptian Museum – apparently from the hands of anti-Mubarak protesters. Other firebombs fell from a shorter building next door, which seemed to be held by their opponents. Sometimes the two groups lobbed bombs at each other. The sounds of gunfire and explosions continued late into the night.