Cairo Street Debate: When Mubarak Foes and Backers Clash

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Marco Longari / AFP / Getty Images

A demonstrator holds an anti-Mubarak sign in Tahrir Square on Jan. 31, 2011

It was almost midday, and a group of several hundred men paused in front of Cairo's 6 October Bridge, where four sand-colored Egyptian army tanks blocked the group's route to Tahrir Square, the focal point of the antigovernment protests. The men turned away from the Nile River to face Mecca, and a cleric led them in prayer.

Some passersby stopped to watch; several others were intent on heckling those prostrated in prayer.

"The country is going to go to them!" a man with a gray mustache screamed, implying that the act of praying designated the men as Islamists. "It's going to go to them! It will be the end of our Egypt!"

"Have some respect while people are praying," a young female in a hijab told him.

"Hosni Mubarak, Hosni Mubarak," another man chanted, expressing his support for the beleaguered Egyptian President.

The men continued their prayers, oblivious to the attempts to distract them. Minutes later, they were back on their feet, arguing with what had become a small pro-Mubarak contingent.

A young man in a black corduroy jacket pushed his way through the crowd toward the anti-Mubarak group. "Nobody understands anything. The country will fall if Mubarak falls," he said.

"Why should it fall? What did he do for you or me except terrorize us with his police force?" replied another man. A dozen or so soldiers looked on as the two men continued to scream at each other. They were practically nose to nose, spittle flying as their voices rose in tandem with the tension.

"Why won't he leave? Just tell me that. He's 82 years old. Why is he still clinging to power? Hasn't he had enough of it?" someone asked.

"Who will replace him if he does?" the man in the corduroy jacket countered.

"Any dog would be better than him," a voice in the crowd interjected.

"Really?" screamed a woman in a burgundy abaya and black hijab. "God damn you all, you stupid people. We'll all starve in less than a week if Mubarak goes. He is stable. We will be at each other's throats if he leaves."

The threat of starvation is a common claim by Mubarak supporters in these days of turmoil, though food supplies appear steady at the moment. Several local store owners interviewed by TIME say there hasn't been a mad rush for supplies, though people appear to be buying in larger quantities. On Monday, Jan. 31, schools, banks and other institutions remained closed. The Egyptian opposition has called for a "million man march" in Cairo on Tuesday, a week after the countrywide protests began. Although police have returned to the posts they abandoned en masse several days ago, little else has returned to normal in this ancient city.

Monday's spontaneous exchange at the bridge between Mubarak supporters and opponents offered a glimpse of the schisms dividing this country of more than 80 million, the Arab world's most populous.

A young man who had been standing off to the side listening to the melee suddenly stood on the fence separating the Nile from the street and unfurled a handwritten banner that read "I hate ElBaradei," referring to the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who has become the most visible leader in the protest movement.

"Get down, get down," the anti-Mubarak crowd chanted at him. A teenage boy tried to snatch the banner from the young man's hand, almost knocking him off his perch and into the Nile. Several soldiers stepped in to ensure the young man's safety. They asked him to step down, and he obliged. "We don't want any provocations, please," a soldier told him.

The cacophony of angry voices was on the rise. The arguments were getting heated.

"You just want Mubarak gone, but you're not thinking about what happens after," a tall man in a denim jacket shouted.

"We just want our dignity, that's all," somebody responded.

"Can't you see that you're only serving to weaken Egypt, and that's what our enemies want?"

"What enemies? My biggest enemy is Mubarak. He's my oppressor. He's the one who has ruined my future."

A woman in a brown abaya, hijab and gloves proceeded forward. "What are you all arguing about?" she said, speaking to both groups. "Why don't you all think about working together for Egypt? Egypt — that's what you should all be saying, not screaming at each other."

"Look at it — look at the looting, look at the burned buildings," a Mubarak supporter told her.

"So what? We will clean it up and rebuild it," she responded. "What are you getting so angry about? The President will not stay forever."

The woman seemed to calm everyone down. Some 30 minutes after the fracas began, it was over. The anti-Mubarak crowd began to move on. "To Tahrir, to Tahrir," several of them shouted, urging their group forward to its original destination. The pro-Mubarak crowd also dissipated, though several remained engaged in fierce debate with the protesters. "Come on, let's go to Tahrir," a man said as he dragged his friend away. "Don't pay any more attention to these people. Their time is over."