Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Protesters clash in Cairo’s central square

CAIRO, Egypt — Pro- and anti-government protesters clashed in Cairo Wednesday despite calls by the Egyptian army for an end to the protests.
Some of the pro-government demonstrators were members of the widely reviled police forces, Reuters reporte

CAIRO, Egypt — Pro- and anti-government protesters clashed in Cairo Wednesday despite calls by the Egyptian army for an end to the protests.

Some of the pro-government demonstrators were members of the widely reviled police forces, Reuters reported. People fought with fists, sticks and stones in Cairo’s central square.

Supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak turned out in larger numbers Wednesday, many converging on a square in the upscale Mohandiseen neighborhood, the New York Times reported. They carried signs and banners praising the Egyptian president.

Mubarak said Tuesday night on state television that he would not stand in planned September elections, but that he would stay to oversee the transition of power over the next seven months. 

Article continues after advertisement

Following Mubarak’s statement, the army — which had said earlier this week that it would not fire on the crowds — said the protesters’ demands had been heard and that it was time to clear the streets.

The 10,000 or so still standing in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square when Mubarak’s announcement came at about 11 p.m. local time did not take the news well.

“We are angry, we want him to leave now, not months from now,” said Hassam Abdel Monem, a 27-year-old plumber whose voice, like most of the protesters here, was hoarse from days of screaming. “I will keep coming here every night until he leaves.”

The crowd erupted in anger after the recorded speech, which was broadcast on white sheets hanging in the square. Protesters, in one of the most insulting gestures in this region, removed their shoes and held them up in the air in the direction of the screens.

Hesham Al Bastawisi, 43, said he was happy that Mubarak would not run for re-election but worried the longtime authoritarian ruler would find a way in the next few months to hold onto power, either on his own or through someone allied with him.

“We are happy, but we don’t trust him,” Al Bastawisi said. “We need to be able to trust him. Those were just words. I have a lot of patience, I can wait this out.”

Karim El Rais, a student, was even more direct. “Mubarak didn’t say anything new. This is our revolution. We are ready to die here waiting for him to leave. My address is now Liberation Square.”

Mubarak, however, appears to be as stubborn as the protesters. In perhaps his most defiant moment, the embattled president declared to the protesters that, “I will die on Egyptian soil.” It appears that Mubarak will not be going out like Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia in the wake of mass protests last month.

In his recorded address, Mubarak tried to appeal to his war hero status and to the fears of some Egyptians that if the president is forced out, chaos could erupt. Some residents outside of Tahrir Square, in fact, said after the speech that Mubarak should be allowed to leave office in dignity.

Article continues after advertisement

The announcement came shortly after U.S. diplomats told the Al Arabiya television station that U.S. President Barack Obama had called on Mubarak to not run in the upcoming elections, indicating the United States would no longer support its once strong ally.

Obama gave another televised address at 6:45 p.m., saying that he spoke directly to Mubarak and stressed the need for an orderly transition. While Obama was not clear whether that transition should occur under the leadership of Mubarak or not, he did say that the transition must be meaningful and peaceful and that it must begin now.

Anti-American sentiment has been high in the last few days. Egyptians said they were increasingly frustrated with what they called a “double standard” when it came to American foreign policy. They said the Americans promote democracy in some country’s but not in others.

Egyptians celebrated the election of Obama and welcomed his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in 2009. But lately, many Egyptians said, Obama’s foreign policy looks similar to that of former U.S. President George W. Bush, who was widely reviled in the Middle East.

Mubarak’s statement came after more than 200,000 people, in the largest demonstration yet, flooded Cairo’s main square on Tuesday, heeding the call of opposition leaders for a “march of a million.” Protesters Tuesday night again called for millions to flood the streets on Wednesday.

The Egyptians protesting Tuesday came from all over the country to join what became the culmination of a week-long uprising aimed at removing Mubarak from power. Egyptians from the countryside said they had walked several hours from their homes to get to Cairo after the government shut down the train system.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian Nobel laureate and democracy campaigner who has become one of the leading figures of the protest movement, also on Tuesday called on Mubarak to resign. 

The protesters were emboldened by an announcement from the military Monday night that it would not fire on protesters. The announcement was a serious blow to the authority of Mubarak.

“Freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody,” an army spokesman said.

Article continues after advertisement

During the recent protests in Tunisia, the country’s army similarly said it would not respond violently — a move that proved a pivotal point in the downfall of the authoritarian regime.

(Read: Jordan’s king sacks government amid protests)

It came as little surprise that protesters were not satisfied with Mubarak’s announcement that he would not run in September’s elections, for more than a week they have been calling for nothing less than the president’s immediate removal. On Tuesday afternoon, the largest banner in Tahrir Square, which is actually a circle, read in English, “People demand the removal of the regime.”

Aware that the whole world is watching the developments on the streets of Cairo, many of the signs bobbing up and down in the crowds of protesters were written in foreign languages. Many were written in English, but there were many also in French, Spanish and other languages.

(Read: Fears ease that Egypt unrest could disrupt oil moving through Suez Canal)

Knowing that the military had effectively sided with the protesters, there was a sense of jubilation in Tahrir Square during the afternoon. Protesters played Egyptian drums and sang nationalist songs. Some protesters were even flying kites.

Resembling the wave at an American football game, chants of “get out,” a statement directed at Mubarak, rippled across the crowds as a military helicopter repeatedly flew around the square.

Another popular chant was directed at the president’s son, Gamal, who was believed to have been in line to take over for his 82-year-old father before he reportedly fled to London earlier in the week. It went, “Gamal, tell your father Egyptians hate him. Egypt is free, not for inheritance.”

The people gathered in Tahrir Square Tuesday came from all parts of Egypt and represented all classes and faiths. The rich chanted alongside the poor, Muslims alongside the secular.

Article continues after advertisement

Many protesters said that this was not just about the economy, but also about democracy and transparency.

Karim Youssef, a wealthy Egyptian sporting his Yale sweatshirt, said he was there because he was tired of the corruption. It is not just about the poor and the unemployed, he said, it is about human rights.

“Being here is an obligation for all Egyptians,” Youssef said. “Basic democracy should be a right.”

Mohamed Fathy, a professor of medicine and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition movement, which has long been suppressed by the Mubarak government, said he was protesting because state security forces had repeatedly attempted to curb academic freedoms.

“I’m out here not for financial reasons but because this regime needs to go,” he said.

Although the protests were largely peaceful Tuesday, there was an underlying tension. Cairo residents, fearing shortages, stockpiled food and water. Bread, an important staple here, is increasingly difficult to find. And armed neighborhood watch groups operating mostly at night added to the sense that there was a growing power vacuum that could, at any time, explode.

Cairo residents said they were scared that a repeat of the violence that took place between police and protesters over the last few days could repeat itself if the police attempt to redeploy. There have been signs in some parts of the city that the police are reorganizing, making for a tense atmosphere.

A pro-Mubarak rally, attended by security forces, took place in front of the country’s foreign ministry building. Numbering in the hundreds, the Mubarak supporters appeared to be trying to goad the reform protesters into a fight. The small crowd could be seen hoisting high-ranking security officers on their shoulders, a clear attempt to antagonize the reformers.

The Egyptian army stood in between the two groups but several small skirmishes took place throughout the day. Another pro-Mubarak rally is planned for Wednesday.

At least 150 people have so far been killed and thousands more injured during clashes with government forces over the past week.