Cairo – Thousands of demonstrators for and against President Hosni Mubarak, some on horses and camels, fought running battles in and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Wednesday, despite a call from Egypt’s powerful military for the president’s opponents to “restore normal life.”
The pro-government supporters had arrived in their thousands, but were outnumbered by Mr. Mubarak’s opponents.
Their confrontations, which were descending into rock-throwing clashes, injected a new and perilous element into the eight-day standoff between anti-government protesters and Mr. Mubarak, hours after he offered to step down in September and President Obama urged a faster transition. The fighting was the first since the antigovernment protesters laid claim to Tahrir Square days ago as they pursued their campaign for Mr. Mubarak’s ouster.
On Wednesday, Mr. Mubarak’s supporters arrived in larger numbers than had been seen before. Hours before, antigovernment protesters had been chanting: “We are not going to go; we are not going to go.”
In counterpoint, demonstrators supporting Mr. Mubarak chorused on Wednesday: “He’s not going to go; he’s not going to go.”
Volleys of rocks flew between the two groups and many protesters were led away with bleeding head wounds. The clashes erupted close to the Egyptian Museum housing a huge trove of priceless antiquities.
Plumes of smoke, apparently from tear gas, rose as the rival crowds surged back and forth.
“Where’s the Egyptian army?” anti-government demonstrators chanted.
“They are trying to create chaos,” said a pro-government demonstrator, Mohamed Ahmed, 30. “This is what Mubarak wants.”
The army took no immediate action as the skirmishes intensified, leaving the competing demonstrators to press towards one another. But troops with bayonets fixed to their AK-47 assault rifles fanned out near the museum as antigovernment protesters sought to build makeshift barricades to keep their foes at bay. And eventually, several tanks maneuvered into position between two clashing crowds, and soldiers tried to calm both. Some anti-government protesters used the shelter of the tanks to launch rocks.
“With our blood, with our souls we sacrifice for you, oh Mubarak,” the president’s supporters chanted, waving Egyptian flags. Among the progovernment demonstrators, 18 men on horseback and two on camels charged against their adversaries.
Earlier, on state television, a military spokesman had asked the government’s foes: “Can we walk safely down the street? Can we go back to work regularly? Can we go out into the streets with our children to schools and universities? Can we open our stores, factories and clubs?”
“You are the ones able to restore normal life,” he said.
“Your message was received and we know your demands,” the spokesman said. “We are with you and for you.”
The army’s role and its ultimate game-plan have remained opaque, with soldiers seeming to fraternize with protesters, without moving against the elite to which its officers belong. While the military has said it will not use force against peaceful protesters, the signs on Wednesday suggested that any gap between it and Mr. Mubarak was narrowing.
The announcement by a military spokesman appeared to be a call for demonstrators, who have turned out in hundreds of thousands in recent days, to leave the streets. It came as high-powered diplomacy between Cairo and Washington unfolded at a blistering pace and reverberations from the protest spread on Wednesday to one more corner of the Arab world in Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh promised to leave in 2013.
On Tuesday, after a 10-minute television address in which Mr. Mubarak pledged to step down within months as modern Egypt’s longest-serving leader, President Obama strongly suggested that Mr. Mubarak’s concession was not enough, declaring that an “orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.”
While the meaning of the last phrase was deliberately vague, it appeared to be a signal that Mr. Mubarak might not be able to delay the shift to a new leadership.
In Tahrir Square, some pro-Mubarak supporters appeared genuinely convinced by the president’s speech. At the same time, there were widespread, though uncorroborated, allegations that many of those supporters were paid government plants.
In a separate development, Internet access, denied for days by official restrictions, began to return.
Hundreds of pro-Mubarak protesters converged on a square in the upscale Mohandiseen neighborhood on Wednesday morning, many of them carrying identical signs and banners praising the Egyptian president.
Others carried a gold-framed portrait of the president. In Tahrir Square, sporadic clashes erupted between supporters of Mr. Mubarak and anti-government marchers, but the military took no immediate steps to intervene.
Messages sent to Egyptian cellphone users on Wednesday seemed intended to reinforce the official line. “Youth of Egypt beware of the rumors and listen to the voice of reason,” read one message. “Egypt is above all. Preserve it.”
The developments were part of a fast-moving sequence of events that could open a new and unpredictable chapter as President Mubarak seeks to reclaim the initiative after days of protests that have turned the center of the capital into a huge and sometimes festive display of opposition that almost left Washington behind. .
In a 30-minute phone call to Mr. Mubarak just before his public remarks late on Tuesday, Mr. Obama was more forceful in insisting on a rapid transition, according to officials familiar with the discussion.
Mr. Mubarak’s speech announcing he would step down came after his support from the powerful Egyptian military began to look uncertain and after American officials urged him not to run again for president.
But Mr. Mubarak’s offer fell short of the protesters’ demands for him to step down immediately and even face trial, and it could well inflame passions in an uprising that has rivaled some of the most epic moments in Egypt’s contemporary history. The protests have captivated a broader Arab world that saw a leader fall in Tunisia last month and growing protests against other American-backed governments.
Mr. Mubarak, 82, said he would remain in office until a presidential election in September and, in emotional terms, declared that he would never leave Egypt.
“The Hosni Mubarak who speaks to you today is proud of his achievements over the years in serving Egypt and its people,” he said, wearing a dark suit and seeming vigorous in the speech broadcast on state television. “This is my country. This is where I lived, I fought and defended its land, sovereignty and interests, and I will die on its soil.”
In Tahrir Square, crowds waved flags as the speech was televised on a screen in the square. “Leave!” they chanted, in what has become a refrain of the demonstrations.
“There is nothing now the president can do except step down and let go of power,” said Mohammed el-Beltagui, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful opposition group, which has entered into the fray with Mr. Mubarak. Those sentiments were echoed by other voices of the opposition, including Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate, and Ayman Nour, a longtime dissident.
The speech and the demonstration, whose sheer numbers represented a scene rarely witnessed in the Arab world, illustrated the deep, perhaps unbridgeable, divide that exists between ruler and ruled in Egypt, the most populous Arab country and once the axis on which the Arab world revolved.
The events here have reverberated across a region captivated by an uprising that in some ways has brought a new prestige to Egypt in an Arab world it once dominated culturally and politically. King Abdullah II of Jordan fired his cabinet after protests there on Tuesday, and the Palestinian cabinet in the West Bank said it would hold long-promised municipal elections “as soon as possible.” Organizers in Yemen and Syria, countries with their own authoritarian rulers, have called for protests this week.
In his speech, Mr. Mubarak was pugnacious, accusing protesters of sowing chaos and political forces here of adding “fuel to the fire.” He fell back to the refrain that has underlined his three decades in power — security and stability — and vowed that he would spend his remaining months restoring calm.
“The events of the past few days impose on us, both citizens and leadership, the choice between chaos and stability,” he said. “I am now absolutely determined to finish my work for the nation in a way that ensures its safekeeping.”
American officials were clearly disappointed by Mr. Mubarak’s effort to stay in office for the next eight months, but Mr. Obama, saying, “It is not the role of any other country to determine Egypt’s leaders,” stopped short of demanding that Mr. Mubarak leave office immediately.
But if Mr. Obama pushed Mr. Mubarak, he did not shove him, at least in his public remarks. He commended the Egyptian military for its “professionalism and patriotism” in refusing to use force against the protesters, comments that clearly undercut Mr. Mubarak’s efforts to maintain control. He praised the protesters for their peaceful action, and he reinforced that “the status quo is not sustainable.”
Mr. Obama was clearly hopeful that Mr. Mubarak would decide to leave office sooner. But he warned there would be “difficult days ahead,” a clear signal that he expected the transition period to be lengthy, and messy.
The uprising, though, seems to have brought a new dynamic to political life here, on display in the scenes of jubilation and protest in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square. The government suffered what could prove a fatal blow to its credibility as police authority collapsed Saturday and Mr. Mubarak’s officials met the early protests with half-hearted measures. On Monday, the army said it would not fire on protesters, calling their demands legitimate and leaving Mr. Mubarak with few options.
Protesters defied a curfew that has become a joke to residents and overcame attempts by the government to keep them at bay by suspending train service, closing roads and shutting down public transportation to Cairo. Peasants from the south joined Islamists from the Nile Delta, businessmen and street-smart youths from gritty Bulaq to join in the bluntest of calls at the protest: that Mr. Mubarak leave immediately.
“Welcome to a free Egypt,” went one cry.
“No one would have imagined a week before that this would happen in Egypt,” said Basel Ramsis, 37, a film director who returned from Spain for the uprising. “I had to be here. We all have to be here. The Egyptian people can change Egypt now.”
As the uprising has spread, thousands of foreigners have sought to flee the country in chaotic scenes at the Cairo airport. The United States ordered all nonemergency embassy staff members and other American government personnel to leave the country, fearing unrest as the protests build toward Friday, when organizers hope for even bigger crowds in what they portray as a last push.
In the long years of Mr. Mubarak’s rule, Egypt was spared the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the delusions of the Baath Party in Syria. But his brand of despotism produced an authoritarianism that suffocated his people, a bureaucracy that corrupted the most mundane transaction and a malaise that saw Egypt turn inward.
“I’ve always said that my age is 60, but I haven’t lived for 30 years,” said Leila Abu Nasr, walking with her husband, Sharif. “We could have done so much more.”
Tens of thousands of people also took to the streets of Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, and other protests gathered in the Nile Delta, in the south and along the Suez Canal.
In an ominous sign that the unrest had not ended, about 250 pro-Mubarak demonstrators attacked the crowd of several thousand in Alexandria with knives and sticks, witnesses said. A dozen people were injured in the melee that followed, medical officials on the scene said. The army fired warning shots to separate the groups.
Reporting was contributed by Liam Stack from Cairo; Nicholas Kulish from Alexandria, Egypt; Alan Cowell from Paris; and David E. Sanger from Washington.
This article “Clashes Erupt in Cairo Between President’s Allies and Foes” originally appeared at The New York Times.
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