Pandemonium reigned Wednesday
in the epicenter of Cairo's demonstrations, where violent street battles
unfolded between supporters and foes of embattled President Hosni
State-run Nile TV flashed a warning ordering people to adhere to a
government-imposed curfew and clear out of Tahrir Square. But curfews in
the past few days have been largely ignored and a crowd, though a less
intense one, remained in the downtown plaza into the night.
Earlier, tear gas and gunshots were fired to quell confrontational
crowds and in one surreal moment, demonstrators thundered through the
crowds on horses and camels. At least one man was pulled off his horse
State television said the riders were pyramid workers who were protesting the negative economic impact of the crisis.
Mubarak's announcement Tuesday that he will not seek re-election had
been expected to dampen the passion of Egypt's nine-day uprising.
But the opposite rang true, at least in central Cairo's Tahrir Square,
where a mob-rule mentality was in sharp contrast to the jubilant mood of
tens of thousands of anti-Mubarak protesters the day before.
It remained unclear whether such confrontations were repeated elsewhere.
Contesting rallies in Egypt's second-largest city, Alexandria, were
largely peaceful. Other Cairo neighborhoods also remained calm.
Events in Egypt "have moved enormously quickly in a very volatile region
of the world, the likes of which we have not seen in our lifetime,"
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs noted Wednesday.
"What we're watching," he said, "is history being made."
The sound of gunfire reverberated in Tahrir Square, which means
"liberation" in Arabic. People hurled verbal insults, Molotov cocktails,
rocks and anything else they could find -- shards of metal, sticks,
shoes -- at one another. Desperate for more ammunition, they dismantled
sidewalks and picked up chunks of cement to throw. They beat each other
in what rapidly spiraled into utter mayhem.
Through the course of the afternoon, pro-Mubarak supporters added to
their ranks and eventually overturned a military vehicle to surge
forward past the Egyptian National Museum toward the center of Tahrir
Square. Flames shot out from the awnings and doorways of several burning
buildings and thick black smoke filled the air.
Some people expressed fears to journalists that a bloodbath would ensue.
Scores of people have already been wounded. Blood streaming down their
faces, they were carried away from the square into a nearby makeshift
Egypt's health minister said 611 people were injured, Nile TV reported.
Many suffered head injuries. Ministry spokesman Abdel Rahman Shaheen
also reported the death of a security forces member in an incident at a
nearby bridge over the Nile River
Protesters climbed atop army tanks, waving flags and chanting loudly.
Each side in the chilling street battle fought to lay claim to this
patch of central Cairo territory that has all along been the symbol of
the uprising. But despite the extremely volatile altercations, the
police were nowhere to be seen and the army did little to restore order.
Mubarak deployed the army Friday after police forces -- who don't have a
clean track record with the Egyptian people -- used excessive force on
protesters. The army said it would not attack peaceful demonstrations,
but Wednesday morning, it urged a return to normalcy.
"Your message is received ... (your) demands became known," a Defense
Ministry spokesman said on Nile TV. "And we are here and awake to
protect the country for you ... not by power but by the love to Egypt.
It is time to go back to normal life."
But the situation in Tahrir Square raised the issue of how long soldiers would stand by passively.
"The army seems now to be reneging on its commitment to protect peaceful
protesters," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director for the Middle
East and North Africa at Amnesty International. "The fact that such
violence is allowed to continue as the army stands there begs the
question whether they have orders not to interfere."
Egyptian Finance Minister Samir Radwan said the army has made its
mission clear: It will not harm its own people. He said the government
was urging opposition leaders to begin dialogue.
"I don't care who's responsible," Radwan said of the ongoing chaos. "But
I think any wise person should come to the table. This is not a blaming
game. I am trying to save my country."
Nile TV sought to portray the unrest as a "foreign conspiracy" fueled by international journalists.
Despite reports that shots had been fired, the television network's
reporters denied any shooting had taken place and even that violence had
broken out in Tahrir Square. It also said that members of the
opposition Muslim Brotherhood were heading to the square "to throw balls
of fire and to start acts of riots and violence."
CNN journalists could not corroborate such reports. Mubarak has in the
past blamed the outlawed but tolerated Islamist umbrella organization
for inciting revolt.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said the Cairo clashes
represented "the very raw and high emotions" of the Egyptian people, and
"what is required now is for people to calm down. I don't agree that
the Egyptian government has lost control," he said, adding that the
international community should not interfere in Egypt's internal
The dramatic and potentially deadly situation Wednesday erupted after
pro-Mubarak demonstrators broke through a barricade separating them from
anti-government protesters who have been amassing for more than a week
in the downtown plaza.
The whole world was watching the crisis engulfing the Arab world's most
populous nation, often a barometer for regional sentiment and action. In
Washington, the Obama administration renewed its call for calm
"We continue to watch the events very closely, and it underscores that
the transition needs to begin now," Gibbs said from the White House,
adding that there needs to be "real change" in Egypt.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon echoed those sentiments
after a meeting in London with British Prime Minister David Cameron.
"I once again urge restraint to all the sides," Ban said. "Any attack
against peaceful demonstrators is unacceptable and I strongly condemn
Angry Egyptians, fed up with Mubarak's rule, have camped out in the
Egyptian capital's central plaza for a week. The burgeoning
demonstrations led to the "march of millions" on Tuesday.
Earlier Wednesday, the crowds were smaller and the mood altered after
Mubarak announced his intention not to seek re-election. Voices
defending the government became increasingly louder. They called the
media "traitors" and "agents" and said the country cannot survive
It was unclear how many were out on the streets of their own volition.
Three employees of the national petroleum company told CNN they were
forced to demonstrate Wednesday.
There were reports that among the pro-Mubarak camp were police in
civilian clothing but an Interior Ministry spokesman denied on state-run
television that police identification cards had been confiscated. He
said if they had, they were stolen or fake.
Businessman Adam Hashem told CNN that people from all walks of life
gathered in front of a mosque about 7 kilometers from Tahrir Square to
Hashem, a Christian, said he met people at the rally who were both
Christians and Muslims and that many of them just wanted to "get on with
A woman at a Cairo sporting club, who did not want to be identified, offered a nuanced view of the crisis at hand.
"After I have seen these youths I say we as a generation did let them down," said the woman, who has a 19-year-old child.
"We did not do our part -- we were busy fighting for our living and
stability at the expense of good governance and at the expense of
fairness in life and society, and to tell you the truth Egyptians don't
deserve that," she said. "The poverty that is surrounding Egypt is
getting bigger and bigger, the distance between the rich and the poor is
getting wider, so this is a bomb that was waiting to explode on us and
that's what we created."
In his televised address Tuesday night, Mubarak announced he will not
seek office again in elections scheduled for September, but vowed to
stay in the country and finish his term.
"My first responsibility now is to restore the stability and security of
the homeland, to achieve a peaceful transition of power in an
environment that will protect Egypt and Egyptians, and which will allow
for the responsibility to be given to whoever the people elect in the
forthcoming elections," Mubarak said.
But the concession, large and remarkable for a man who has held a tight
grip on power for three decades, may have been too little and too late
for many Egyptians.
"He is unfortunately going to continue the agony for another six or
seven months," said opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace
"He's going to continue to polarize the country," ElBaradei said. "He's
continuing to get people even more angry. ... Whoever gives him that
advice gave him absolutely the wrong advice. He just has to let go."
Mubarak's announcement largely rang flat in Tahrir Square, where
thousands of protesters erupted in chants of "Down with Mubarak!" and
"The people want the president to be judged!" following his announcement
Tuesday. Some waved shoes in the air -- a deep insult in the Arab world
-- and said they would continue their demonstrations until Mubarak
But Arab League Secretary-General Amre Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign
minister, said demonstrators should weigh what Mubarak has said before
"I'm aware that there are certain currents in Egypt that will not see
that as satisfactory and they need more," Moussa, a possible
presidential contender himself, told CNN. But, he added, "I believe that
there is something new that has been offered."
Waleed Tawfik, a Mubarak supporter, said not all Egyptians agree that Mubarak should step down immediately.
"Not everybody wants President Hosni Mubarak out," Tawfik said. "There
are elements in the government that needed to be changed. ... There is
reform. There is economic reform, but ... change will not happen
overnight. There's not a magical button for change. Change will take
Mubarak has led Egypt for nearly 30 years since the 1981 assassination
of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, aided by an emergency decree that has
allowed him to rule with an iron fist. But following demonstrations that
have only grown in the past week, the 82-year-old former air force
general told his people Tuesday night, "I have spent enough time serving
"I will pursue the transfer of power in a way that will fulfill the
people's demands, and that this new government will fulfill the people's
demands and their hopes for political, economic and social progress,"
The Egyptian parliament has been suspended until a full judicial review
is conducted of the November-December 2010 parliamentary elections.
The government also shortened its curfew by a few hours compared to
recent days, though many protesters have ignored the orders to stay
inside. The new curfew lasts from 5 p.m. Wednesday until 7 a.m.
Banks and schools have been closed during the demonstrations, teller
machine screens were dark and gas stations have run out of fuel. Long
lines snaked around bakeries and supermarkets as shops rationed how much
food customers could buy.
Mubarak's announcement came less than three weeks after a wave of
protests forced Tunisia's longtime strongman to flee to Saudi Arabia in
As in nearby Tunisia, the Egyptian protests have been fueled by economic
woes, including a dramatic rise in the cost of living coupled with high
unemployment. Despite the government's food subsidies, people are
struggling, with an estimated 40% of the country living in poverty.
The majority of Egypt's population -- and the vast majority of its
unemployed -- is under 30, and many protesters are young men looking for
economic opportunities and a better life.
As the demonstrations grew, Mubarak fired his Cabinet and ordered newly
appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman to hold talks on political reform
with opposition leaders.
The demonstrations turned ugly last Friday, when thousands of riot and
plainclothes police used brutal force to crack down on people on the
streets. Since the weekend, the army has replaced police as the
enforcers of security, and the gatherings, until Wednesday, had been
In recent days, protests inspired by the Tunisian outcome have spread to
Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and Sudan. Calls for political reform prompted
Jordan's King Abdullah II Tuesday to dismiss his government and appoint a
new prime minister. A Facebook page urged similar demonstrations in
And in Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh -- who has been in office for
32 years -- said Wednesday he will not run for president nor hand over
power to his son once his current term ends in 2013. Still, many Yemenis
said they will proceed with their planned "day of rage" protests
John Entelis, director of Middle East studies at New York's Fordham
University, said the Arab world is facing a "wave" of unrest sparked by
the Tunisian revolt.
"If it were not for Tunisia, none of this would be happening at this time or in this way," Entelis said.