Mubarak's Supporters Strike Back
Violence erupted in Egypt's capital when supporters of President Hosni
Mubarak clashed for the first time with protesters, as the regime dug in
against demands, from within the country and from Washington, that a
transfer of power begin immediately.
The clashes began in central Cairo's Tahrir Square hours after Mr.
Mubarak announced in a speech late Tuesday that he wouldn't run in
elections slated for later this year. They gained intensity during the
day, with the two sides rushing at each other, wielding clubs and
throwing Molotov cocktails. Some Mubarak supporters charged protesters
on horseback and camelback, a tactic the regime has employed against
past demonstrations. Clutches of soldiers looked on, doing little to
The Obama administration, watching the violence, began pushing harder
for Mr. Mubarak to quickly step aside and make way for a transitional
government, people familiar with the matter said.
The U.S., Egypt's most important ally, began to chart a course of
reforms. An interim government, made up of opposition parties and
elements of the current regime, could buy time to rewrite the Egyptian
constitution, allow opposition parties to organize, and lay the
groundwork for elections later this year, say supporters of the idea.
Washington's stance pits the U.S. against Mr. Mubarak, who has indicated
he would stick around until after elections, and against those among
the Egyptian opposition who are pushing for much speedier elections.
For the first time since Egypt erupted more than a week ago, White House
officials made it clear Washington and Cairo—close allies for three
decades—are now on different tracks.
Egypt's Foreign Ministry, underscoring the sense that the regime was
trying to regain the upper hand, rejected the call from President Barack
Obama for an immediate start to a political transition. In a statement,
the ministry said "foreign parties" aimed to "incite the internal
situation in Egypt."
But White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, said when the White House says change is needed now, "'now' means yesterday."
Leading opposition figures also dug in, repeating their rejection of Mr.
Mubarak's offer to step down after negotiating political reforms and
holding elections, which have been scheduled for September. "Once he's
out of the country" the demonstrators will go home, opposition leader
Mohamed ElBaradei said in an interview.
Clashes were continuing to flare into the early hours of Thursday
morning, as fires continued to burn around Tahrir Square. Early
Thursday, Molotov cocktails, thrown from a bridge nearby where
pro-Mubarak protesters had assembled, set a building on fire.
More than 600 people were wounded and three died in Wednesday's clashes,
according to the Health Ministry. The dueling rhetoric and street
fighting appeared to be leading toward another large showdown on Friday,
when opposition figures vowed to call another rally.
The turmoil in Egypt continued to fan tensions across the region. In
Jordan, where weeks of protests convinced King Abdullah II to dismiss
the government and name a new prime minister on Tuesday, the Muslim
Brotherhood political organization publicly rejected his new choice and
demanded yet another.
In Israel, which has relations with only Jordan and Egypt in the Arab
world, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the situation in Egypt
could affect Israel's security for years to come.
Many foreign companies operating in Egypt continued to cut back on operations.
Procter & Gamble Co., for example, said its two Egypt plants
remained closed, and the foreign national employees it evacuated over
the last few days haven't returned to Egypt.
The government restored Internet service Wednesday, after cutting it off
to deprive protesters of an organizing tool. But the counterattack on
behalf of the regime extended to social networks such as Facebook and
email messages—the mediums antiregime demonstrators used so effectively
in the early stages of the protests more than a week ago.
Facebook Inc. said it has five million active users in Egypt, one million of whom access the network on mobile phones.
"Please spread the word to your relatives, colleagues and friends.
Mubarak's speech was enough," read one message posted on a Facebook
site. "He deserves to leave his position in a respectable way, as much
as we deserve a safe, secured and stable Country....Don't 4get that we
have a real enemies waiting Egypt to fall:( SAVE THE COUNTRY NOW!!!"
It was unclear where such messages were coming from.
The mobilization of government backers began almost immediately after
Mr. Mubarak's speech late Tuesday. Crowds of government backers soon
began showing up amid antigovernment protesters in the northern city of
In Cairo, by midday Wednesday, thousands of regime supporters marched on
Tahrir Square, pushing out roughly equal numbers of antiregime
demonstrators camped there.
Gunshots could be heard near the square as the sun set; a tree and
building adjacent to the renowned National Museum caught on fire.
While the regime has been accused in the past of paying workers to
attack antiregime protesters, many of the government backers interviewed
on the streets Wednesday seemed sincere in expressing either undiluted
support for Mr. Mubarak or a sense that demonstrations against him
should now end.
Sayed Mohammed Sayed, a 37-year-old supporter of Mr. Mubarak, said the
protesters pushed things too far by refusing to back down after the
president agreed to pursue reforms and eventually step down.
"The situation is unacceptable," the air-conditioner technician said.
"The majority of protesters are young people and aren't aware of their
actions and consequences."
Other regime supporters came armed with metal rods, which they wielded against protesters.
Egyptian state-controlled television said that Muslim Brotherhood
members were responsible for most of the violence in the square,
including throwing incendiary devices—accusations the Muslim Brotherhood
On Wednesday, the bloody scenes of street battles were common. Pro- and
anti-Mubarak groups faced off, chanting slogans at each other, fighting
and hurling missiles. Protesters at two entrances to Tahrir Square—by
the Egyptian Museum and the route from downtown Cairo—came under attack
from men heaving rocks and running into the protesters with horses and
At the downtown entrance to the square, groups of Mubarak supporters
started organizing charges, running up and down the street creating
mayhem. Protesters responded by forming a human barrier three to four
people deep to keep the Mubarak supporters out.
Mohamed Abdu, a 22-year-old graduate of Helwan University and a member
of the Muslim Brotherhood, grew visibly shaken as the men began hurling
rocks over the human barricade. One man on the protesters' side pulled
out a pair of large light bulbs from his backpack and threw them at the
Mubarak supporters. He was quickly shouted down by protesters chanting
Ibrahim Saadouni, 47, a lawyer, said he believed the violence was
started by the thugs for hire that are a standard feature of Egyptian
electoral politics. "They've come to create a civil war," Mr. Saadouni
said. "They're doing this to make war so the army will step in to end
the demonstrations, because we won't leave."
The Obama administration condemned attacks by pro-Mubarak forces. "We
are deeply concerned about attacks on the media and peaceful
demonstrators," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Into the early hours Thursday morning, members of both sides hunkered
down to sleep, and low-level clashes persisted. At various points in the
square, fires raged.
—Matt Bradley, Margaret Coker, Marc Champion, Tamer El-Ghobashy and Christopher Rhoads contributed to this article.
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