Demonstrations turn violent as pro-Mubarak crowd clashes with protesters

Mubarak supporters clash with protesters in Tahrir Square. Both sides used rocks, sticks and firebombs.
Mubarak supporters clash with protesters in Tahrir Square. Both sides used rocks, sticks and firebombs. (Linda Davidson)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 3, 2011

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.

'Pro-stability rally'

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."

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