February 2, 2011


[Many in the crowd said they had been offered 50 Egyptian pounds — less than $10 — and a meal to express support for the government in the square. “Fifty pounds for my country?” one woman said, in apparent disbelief.]

Pro  Mubarak and anti-government protesters clash  in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Wednesday. More photos >> 
CAIRO  President Obama’s calls for a rapid transition to a new order in Egypt seemed eclipsed on Wednesday as a choreographed surge of thousands of people chanting support for the Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak fought running battles with a larger number of antigovernment protesters in and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
The mayhem and chaos — with riders on horses and camels thundering through the central square — offered a complete contrast to the scenes only 24 hours earlier when hundreds of thousands of antigovernment protesters turned it into a place of jubilant celebration, believing that they were close to overthrowing a leader who has survived longer than any other in modern Egypt.
Such was the nervousness across the Arab world, spreading from its traditional heart in Egypt, that the leader of Yemen offered on Wednesday to step down by 2013 — the latest in a series of autocratic leaders bending to the wave of anger engulfing the region.
Late on Tuesday, Mr. Mubarak himself offered to step down in September but that was not enough for the protesters — or for Mr. Obama, who urged speedier change.
On Wednesday, the enduring standoff between Mr. Mubarak and his adversaries took an explosive and perilous turn, suggesting that Mr. Mubarak in fact had no intention of exiting earlier than he had announced.
Hours after a call from Egypt’s powerful military for the president’s opponents to “restore normal life,” thousands of men, some carrying fresh flags and newly printed signs supporting Mr. Mubarak, surged into Tahrir Square.
Some waved off reporters and yelled, “No photos.”
They were outnumbered by Mr. Mubarak’s opponents, who have spent nine days in the square insisting on his ouster. Clashes erupted close to the Egyptian Museum housing a huge trove of priceless antiquities.
The two sides traded volleys of rocks and engaged in hand-to-hand fighting. Many were led or carried away with bleeding head wounds. Antigovernment protesters organized themselves into groups, smashing chunks of concrete into smaller projectiles to be hurled at their adversaries. The violence was the most serious since the antigovernment protesters laid claim to Tahrir, or Liberation, Square days ago as they pursued what seemed to be a largely peaceful campaign for Mr. Mubarak’s ouster.
Hours before the violence erupted in the square, antigovernment protesters had been chanting: “We are not going to go; we are not going to go.”
In counterpoint, demonstrators supporting Mr. Mubarak chorused back: “He’s not going to go; he’s not going to go.”
At one point, plumes of smoke, apparently from tear gas, rose above the rival crowds surging back and forth as the two sides fought for the upper hand.
“Where’s the Egyptian army?” antigovernment demonstrators chanted.
“They are trying to create chaos,” said Mohamed Ahmed, 30. “This is what Mubarak wants.”
The army took no immediate action as the skirmishes intensified, leaving the competing demonstrators to press toward 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 the two clashing crowds, and soldiers tried to calm both.
Some antigovernment protesters used the shelter of the tanks to launch rocks, and others said they believed their foes were agents of the authorities. At one point, they began calling for the soldiers to fire into the air to disperse their opponents.
Mohamed Gamil, a 30-year-old dentist in the crowd of antigovernment protesters, said their enemies wanted to “take the revolution from us.”
“Never, never, never,” he cried. “We are ready to die for the revolution.”
Pro-government demonstrators, too, vowed a fight to the end.
“With our blood, with our souls, we sacrifice for you, oh Mubarak,” some of the president’s supporters chanted, waving Egyptian flags. Among the pro-government demonstrators, 18 men on horseback and two on camels charged against their adversaries.
Signs that the pro-Mubarak forces were organized and possibly professional were rife. When the melee broke out, a group of them tried to corner a couple of journalists in an alley to halt their reporting.
Many in the crowd said they had been offered 50 Egyptian pounds — less than $10 — and a meal to express support for the government in the square. “Fifty pounds for my country?” one woman said, in apparent disbelief.
A 25-year-old who had just completed his compulsory military duty, Islam Hessomen, denounced the violence. “A few thousand people throwing rocks at each other is destroying the peaceful revolution of millions,” he said. “Mubarak doesn’t deserve to be president anymore.”
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 Salehpromised 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, Mr. 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 antigovernment 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 Mr. 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.
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, on Tuesday. “We could have done so much more.”
Tens of thousands of people also took to the streets of Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, on Tuesday, 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.