Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Firebombs and rocks rained down on Cairo's central square Wednesday as thousands of supporters clashed with opponents of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in what could signal a dangerous new phase in Egypt's upheaval.
Throngs of pro-government backers — some on horses and camels, some carrying knives and sticks — took to the streets hours after Mubarak announced late Tuesday that he would step down when his term ends in September. They converged on Tahrir Square, where thousands of opposition protesters were pushing ahead with rallies demanding Mubarak's immediate ouster.
Mubarak supporters reportedly broke through a human chain of anti-government demonstrators in the square. Angry opponents of Mubarak snatched posters of the president out of the hands of his supporters and ripped them to shreds.
"At one point, the pro-Mubarak demonstrators led a charge into the crowd on horseback and on camel, and that created chaos," said NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, reporting from Tahrir Square, which has been the center of anti-government demonstrations for more than a week.
Opposition protesters retaliated, dragging some from their mounts, throwing them to the ground and beating their faces bloody. Anti-Mubarak demonstrators were seen running with their shirts or faces bloodied, some men and women in the crowd were weeping. A scent of tear gas wafted over the area, but it was not clear who had fired it.
The battles continued even as night fell, with both sides lobbing "rocks, metal bars, glass, Molotov cocktails — anything they can get their hands on," NPR's Eric Westervelt reported from the square.
Fighting between the two sides also erupted in the historic Mediterranean port of Alexandria right after Mubarak's address.
The crowds that assembled in Cairo were considerably smaller but no less energized than Tuesday's show of force, when at least a quarter million packed the central Tahrir, or Liberation, Square.
Wounded people were being taken away from the scene of the clashes, but it was unclear how many and how badly injured they were, Westervelt said. He added that opposition protesters were emphatic that the pro-Mubarak forces are "hired thugs, members of the police and security forces."
"The military is by and large standing back and letting the battle rage on," he said. "They have fired some warning shots in the air, but other than that, they are letting the forces go at it."
There was consensus that the inaction was "payback by police" for the week of anti-government protests, Westervelt said.
Some anti-Mubarak protesters argued with soldiers, begging them to help. "Why don't you protect us?" some shouted, while soldiers replied they did not have orders to do so and told people to go home.
"These are paid thugs," another protester, 52-year-old Emad Nafa, said of the attackers. "The army is neglectful. They let them in."
Earlier Wednesday, a spokesman for Egypt's military appeared on national television and urged protesters to go home.
"The army forces are calling on you," the spokesman, Ismail Etman, said in a statement directed at the anti-government demonstrators. "You began by going out to express your demands and you are the ones capable of restoring normal life."
But opposition forces — a disparate coalition of factions including the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei — called for demonstrations to continue.
ElBaradei told Al Jazeera television on Wednesday that protesters were planning a "Friday of Departure" if Mubarak did not step down by then.
"I ask the army to intervene to protect Egyptian lives," Al Jazeera quoted ElBaradei as saying.
President Obama spoke with Mubarak by phone shortly after the Egyptian leader's announcement aired late Tuesday.
"What is clear and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now," Obama said. "Through thousands of years, Egypt has known many moments of transformation. The voices of the Egyptian people are telling us this is one of those moments, this is one of those times."
A former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Frank Wisner, met with Mubarak earlier and made clear that it is the U.S. "view that his tenure as president is coming to a close," according to an administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The continued chaos in Egypt has taken a toll on the country's economy, with Moody's cutting its sovereign rating to Ba2 on Wednesday, citing the unrest. The downgrading will make it harder for Egypt to borrow, which could further damage the economy and contribute to further unrest.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, Eric Westervelt and Corey Flintoff reported from Cairo for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.