“Talked with several soldiers manning barricades around Tahrir. Said they have orders not to allow more pro-Mubarak people near the square.”
03:52 GMT, Thursday, 3 February 2011
Amid the violence on the streets of Cairo one pro-Mubarak demonstrator holds aloft a hand made sign reading “Shut up Obama”. But the disorder on the streets has only sharpened the Obama’s administration appetite for a confrontation. ABC says Obama is “very concerned” that President Hosni Mubarak is delaying. The Wall Street Journal says the White House has a new plan for a speedy transfer of power. The New York Times says the CIA is war-gaming how that will play in the region. However you put it, it amounts to one thing. The White House, as much as the pro-democracy protesters, is demanding “Mubarak must go”. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has telephoned the new vice-president and intelligence chief of two decades, Omar Suleiman, to tell him immediately to seize the opportunity for a transition to a more democratic society. That transition must start now. She said that the violence was shocking and told him that they must investigate the violence and hold those responsible accountable.
You might have thought that after all their initial pussyfooting caution, the bloodshed might have given the Obama administration second thoughts about whether it was wise to back the protesters and scorn Mubarak’s promise to go in September. Not a bit of it. If anything it has emboldened it to be more open about its wishes and made it more determined to winkle him out. Others have joined the fray. Shortly after a very rare meeting with the US president, former Republican presidential candidate John McCain issued a statement: “The rapidly deteriorating situation in Egypt leads me to the conclusion that President Mubarak needs to step down and relinquish power. It is clear that the only institution in Egypt that can restore order is the army, but I fear that for it to do so on behalf of a government led by or involving President Mubarak would only escalate the violence and compromise the army’s legitimacy.”
A Western diplomat tells me that their best intelligence suggests that secret police were among those causing the violence and that it was almost certainly orchestrated by those very close to Mubarak. He saw it as a last desperate throw of the dice by a leader who is badly misreading the public mood. There are frantic conversations taking place between Washington and Cairo. We can’t know the details but surely the main players are being urged to action. What happens on the streets is very important. It colours the outcome and may decide it. But short of bloody revolution, only the army and those in Mubarak’s inner circle can force him to go.
Gunfire has rung out in the early hours of Thursday around Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where Egyptian anti-government protesters are camping out. At least two people are reported dead. On Wednesday three died in clashes with supporters of President Hosni Mubarak. Hundreds of people were wounded as rival groups fought pitched battles in and around Tahrir Square, in the worst violence in nine days of protests. The protesters are demanding President Mubarak’s resignation. He says he will serve out his current presidential term, his fifth, which ends in September. The unrest has left about 300 people dead across the country over more than a week, according to UN estimates. In a speech on Tuesday night Mr Mubarak – who has been in office for nearly 30 years – promised to leave at the next polls and pledged constitutional reform.
He said he would devote his remaining time in power to ensuring a peaceful transition. US President Barack Obama responded by saying an orderly transition “must begin now”. Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei dismissed Mr Mubarak’s move as “a trick” to stay in power, and Tahrir Square protesters have vowed to continue their demonstrations until Mr Mubarak quits. Abdelhalim Kandil, leader of Egypt’s Kifaya (Enough) opposition movement, said Mr Mubarak’s offer not to serve a sixth term was not enough. “I will tell you very simply that there is an unprecedented popular movement that rejects the presence of the president on a scope that has not been seen before, that is calling for the will of the people to be imposed,” he said. If Mr Mubarak does not step down, demonstrators have planned to march on the presidential palace. Meanwhile, internet services were returning to the country, having been cut off for days by the government.
Egypt’s pro-democracy revolution descended into violence and bloodshed overnight as President Hosni Mubarak’s regime launched a co-ordinated bid to wrest back control of city streets, crush the popular uprising, and reassert its authority. Bursts of heavy gunfire rained into Tahir square just before dawn today and there were reports that three more people had been killed. Protest organiser Mustafa el-Naggar said he saw the bodies of three dead protesters being carried toward an ambulance. He said the gunfire came from at least three locations off in the distance and that the Egyptian military, which has ringed the square with tank squads for days to try to keep some order, did not intervene. Another witness said as many as 15 people had been wounded in the fresh clashes. Clashes had continued into the early hours even though the pro-Mubarak supporters had been pushed back to the edge of the square and explosions – possibly from gas canisters – echoed around the area.
There were extraordinary scenes in the centre of Cairo as anti-government demonstrators fought running battles with organised cohorts of Mubarak supporters, exchanging blows with iron bars, sticks and rocks. At one point pro-Mubarak forces rode camels and horses into central Tahrir Square, scattering opponents. At least three people were killed yesterday and up to 1,500 injured according to medical sources. A palm tree and a building caught alight while fires were burning outside the historic Egyptian museum as petrol bombs were hurled back and forth between the two opposing factions. The violence was immediately condemned by David Cameron, the Obama administration, and Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, who condemned what he described as attacks on peaceful demonstrators. The White House warned that if any of the violence was instigated by the government it should stop immediately, and also strongly criticised the beating of local and foreign journalists, including a CNN reporter.
But after Mubarak’s announcement that he would not seek another term at elections due in September, the regime appeared to be in no mood to listen – and determined to regain control after a week of near anarchy. The strident tone was illustrated by a startling public rebuff to Barack Obama. Rejecting his overnight demand that the promised political transition and reforms begin without delay, the Egyptian foreign ministry said bluntly that meddling by “foreign parties” was unacceptable and was “aimed to incite the internal situation”. Guardian journalists in the square – close to both sides – witnessed pitched battles that turned the square into a warzone as anti-Mubarak protesters tried desperately to hold their ground and both sides tore up paving stones to use as weapons. Among those singled out for attack were journalists including Anderson Cooper of CNN and two Associated Press correspondents. A Belgian journalist – Maurice Sarfatti, who uses the byline Serge Dumont – was reportedly beaten, arrested and accused of spying.
Video of the Demonstrations before the Pro Mubarak attack
At one stage tanks attempted to move between the two groups but did little to stop the escalating clashes. In one incident soldiers moved out of the way to permit pro-Mubarak demonstrators to reach their opponents. By late afternoon, groups of men were on roofs in Champollion Street, a few hundred metres away, hurling missiles down on those beneath them. At just after six o’clock automatic weapons fire was heard. Some pro-Mubarak forces appeared to be plainclothes police, while others involved in the assault in Tahrir Square were said to have been paid by the regime. The interior ministry denied the reports, while the army denied firing on protesters. In other cities the regime fought back strongly. In Alexandria, Mubarak supporters staged a furious counterprotest in a square that has seen protests for nine days, sparking violent arguments and altercations between rival groups. The violence increased fears in western capitals that the crisis, far from being defused, was taking a more sinister turn. David Cameron said: “If it turns out that the regime in any way has been sponsoring or tolerating this violence, that would be completely and utterly unacceptable.”