Ahdaf Soueif, “The Egyptian regime has turned its thugs loose again…”:
I knew something was wrong when I woke up to the sound of car horns. It’s been so quiet and peaceful the last few days we’ve even started seeing the bats once again flitting in and out of the fruit trees at dusk. This wasn’t the normal noise of Cairo traffic; this was aggressive, patterned and constant, like what you get after a football match only lots more so. Out of my window I saw the crowd marching across 15 May flyover. It’s odd: the pro-Mubarak lot are so much more regimented – and so much less civil: the noise pollution, the rude gestures at the street, the sticks, the attitude – and at the same time the perfectly scripted banners, the “stewards” marshalling and directing them.
By midday they had started to attack Tahrir Square; the attacks are continuing as I write now. I’m getting regular updates from the square from my son, nieces, sister and other friends in the thick of it. The people who on Tuesday night were listening to music and debating modes of government are now putting their bodies on the line. It’s all they have. The pro-Mubarak lot, of course, have sticks and stones, and swords and chains and dogs and trucks and … the military stand by and do nothing.
So who are these people? In support of the president, they throw Molotov bottles and plant pots from the tops of buildings onto the heads of women and children. To establish stability and order, they break heads with rocks and legs with bicycle chains. To have their say in the debate they slash faces with knives. Who are they? Well, every time one of them is captured his ID says he’s a member of the security forces. And his young captors simply hand him to the military who are standing by.
The people here are so way ahead of their government. If you could see the kids on the street telling you that the regime wants to pin the responsibility for this movement on the Islamists in order to scare the west – when actually it was started by 11 Facebook youth groups only one of which has any religious colouring, and very mild at that. If you could see the small field hospital that’s gone up with volunteer doctors – mostly young women – treating the people, and the medicines pouring in from well-wishers. If you could see the young men with their dropped jeans and the tops of their boxers showing forming a human chain to protect what the people have gained over the last week in Tahrir Square. If you could see my nieces with their hair streaming like a triumphant banner tweeting for dear life in the midst of it all … you would know beyond a shadow of a doubt: Egypt deserves its place in the sun – out of the shadow of this brutal regime.
Graeme Wood in Cairo:
The Egyptian protest started getting violent early this afternoon, a few minutes after a cheerful girl, about 14 years old, handed me a caramel. Since I arrived yesterday afternoon, and up until the caramel reached my hand, Tahrir Square was a calm place lacking any menace whatsoever. Children were having their faces painted. Men and women were happily sweeping up trash, helping each other pitch tents, and waiting patiently for their turn at the water tap. It reminded me of Burning Man, except that in the place of stations for full-body nude massages or refills of psychedelics, it had little protest areas where one could find Muslim Brothers, students, and every other flavor of disaffected Egyptian.
I was sitting across from the Mogamma, the imposing futurist fortress on the edge of the square, when I heard that a pro-Mubarak crowd that started in Muhandiseen, about a mile away, had started to stream into the square from the direction of the Egyptian Museum. A few of them had already reached the KFC at the center of the square when I saw the first of more than a hundred injured men being carried back to safety, which for the protesters meant the center of the square. Then the stones started flying, and the blood gushing in full force. Each side was systematically unpaving downtown Cairo, and in moments when they were not throwing stones they were breaking them against the curb into smaller stones that they could throw further. Men and women were screaming and crying, and I lifted my notebook to my head to avoid getting brained by a stray rock.
Maryam Ishani’s account:
Throughout the day, the mood changed significantly, starting from noon. In the morning, I went through Tahrir just to see what was going on and it was actually quite quiet. [Sirens heard in the background.] It was very peaceful. There were women and children gathered. There were a lot of people praying. It was quite calm.
So I walked around and ran into CNN’s Ben Wedeman. There were a lot of press walking around. It was very easy for press to get around Tahrir at that time. We moved out, hearing that there was a situation with pro-Mubarak demonstrators on the outside, coming in. So we walked towards them. They have a very different attitude toward the press right now. They are looking for press, even asking people to tell them where Al Jazeera is, where’s Reuters?
I lost Ben at that point. They let me through because I look Egyptian, but they won’t let white press through. I was with three journalists — French, German, and Ben Wedeman — and I got into the square without them.
Now, I’m basically stuck between what they’ve established as two cordons around Tahrir. One is established by pro-Mubarak demonstrators, whose job it is to keep people out of the square. That includes ambulances and anyone who’s not on their side. They ask you if you’re pro- or against. They’re looking for Americans and foreigners. They’re saying things like, “You brought Baradei. This is your fault. You’re trying to break Egypt.” They’re quite hostile. They physically hit me with sticks. I went in to film them throwing stones and they knocked me back pretty hard, which is not the mood of the demonstrators inside the square.
Today President Mubarak seems to have decided to crack down on the democracy movement, using not police or army troops but rather mobs of hoodlums and thugs. I’ve been spending hours on Tahrir today, and it is absurd to think of this as simply “clashes” between two rival groups. The pro-democracy protesters are unarmed and have been peaceful at every step. But the pro-Mubarak thugs are arriving in buses and are armed — and they’re using their weapons.
In my area of Tahrir, the thugs were armed with machetes, straight razors, clubs and stones. And they all had the same chants, the same slogans and the same hostility to journalists. They clearly had been organized and briefed. So the idea that this is some spontaneous outpouring of pro-Mubarak supporters, both in Cairo and in Alexandria, who happen to end up clashing with other side — that is preposterous. It’s difficult to know what is happening, and I’m only one observer, but to me these seem to be organized thugs sent in to crack heads, chase out journalists, intimidate the pro-democracy forces and perhaps create a pretext for an even harsher crackdown.
Since military tanks moved in across Egypt on Jan. 28, the army has largely held the support of the anti-government demonstrators and the city’s residents. “The whole military is supporting the revolution,” said Taher Mohamed, a lawyer, as he headed into Tuesday’s so-called march of millions. The sentiment was widespread: the army is neutral; it represents the people; it has refused to fire on demonstrators. Protesters hoping to see President Hosni Mubarak fall paused to shake hands with soldiers or cheer them from the tops of tanks.
But on Wednesday, busloads of Mubarak supporters armed with sticks and machetes as well as a small army of men on horseback were able to get through Cairo’s many military and civilian checkpoints, advancing into Tahrir Square seemingly without hindrance from the military. All of this occurred on a day when pedestrians and drivers had to weave their way through practically impenetrable army roadblocks all around downtown Cairo.
As volleys of stones rained down across the pro-Mubarak and anti-Mubarak lines in the square, frantic protesters expressed their shock and horror that the army was not intervening to stop the violence. “The thugs are hitting us from every direction right now,” says Mahmoud Afifi, an activist with the 6th of April youth movement, who spoke from the midst of the clashes. “The National Democratic Party paid them money to come in here and attack us. And we don’t know why the army didn’t stop them. We are very angry at the army now.”
The Committe to Protect Journalists reports on targeting of news media:
Supporters of President Hosni Mubarak have begun violently attacking journalists reporting on the streets of Cairo today, a shift in tactics from recent media censorship, the Committee to Protect Journalists said. CPJ calls on the Egyptian military to provide protection for journalists.
“The Egyptian government is employing a strategy of eliminating witnesses to their actions,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “The government has resorted to blanket censorship, intimidation, and today a series of deliberate attacks on journalists carried out by pro-government mobs. The situation is frightening not only because our colleagues are suffering abuse but because when the press is kept from reporting, we lose an independent source of crucial information.”
Juan Cole, on Mubarak’s game plan:
The outlines of Hosni Mubarak’s efforts to maintain regime stability and continuity have now become clear. In response to the mass demonstrations of the past week, he has done the following:
[steps 1 -4]
5. When the protests continued Tuesday, Mubarak came on television and announced that he would not run for a second term and would step down in September. His refusal to step down immediately and his other maneuvers indicated his determination, and probably that of a significant section of the officer corps, to maintain the military dictatorship in Egypt, but to attempt to placate the public with an offer to switch out one dictator for a new one (Omar Suleiman, likely).
6. When this pledge of transition to a new military dictator did not, predictably enough, placate the public either, Mubarak on Wednesday sent several thousand secret police and paid enforcers in civilian clothing into Tahrir Square to attack the protesters with stones, knouts, and molotov cocktails, in hopes of transforming a sympathetic peaceful crowd into a menacing violent mob. This strategy is similar to the one used in summer of 2009 by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to raise the cost of protesting in the streets of Tehran, when they sent in basij (volunteer pro-regime militias). Used consistently and brutally, this show of force can raise the cost of urban protesting and gradually thin out the crowds.
Note that this step number 6 required that the army agree to remain neutral and not to actively protect the crowds. The secret police goons were allowed through army checkpoints with their staves, and some even rode through on horses and camels. Aljazeera English’s correspondent suggests that the military was willing to allow the protests to the point where Mubarak would agree to stand down, but the army wants the crowd to accept that concession and go home now.