Bullets, Firebombs and Rocks: The Violent Struggle for Cairo's Tahrir Square

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Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

Pro-government protesters, left, clash with anti-government protesters outside the National Museum near Tahrir square in Cairo early February 3, 2011.

Updated: Feb. 2, 2011, 11:30 p.m. local time

One thing was clear from the moment I stepped out of my hotel into Tahrir Square on Wednesday morning: Egypt's extraordinary 10-day uprising was about to turn ugly.

I saw thousands of people moving through the downtown streets to join up with a crowd of Mubarak loyalists who had been gathering on the Corniche, the boulevard adjacent to the Nile River in Cairo. A panicked Egyptian newspaper reporter called me to say he had fled the center of the square in terror and that violent clashes were imminent. "Please, don't go outside, it is not safe for Westerners," he said.

At the two choke points entering the square — the heart of the uprising — hundreds of pro-Mubarak supporters pushed forward against the makeshift metal cordons that had been thrown up by protesters and soldiers in recent days. Comprised of enraged loyalists of President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP), whose headquarters, which overlook the square, were torched on Jan. 28, the group chanted, "Mubarak must stay!"

After returning to my hotel, I stepped onto a balcony overlooking both the Corniche and the entry to Tahrir Square. I had a clear view of the battle's start. Pro- and anti-government protesters faced off across a vacant space about 50 ft. (15 m) wide next to the Egyptian Museum, home to some of the world's most precious antiquities. Shortly before 4 p.m., the pro-Mubarak crowd of a few hundred people surged forward, closing the space. Both sides then ripped up the pavement, grabbing chunks of concrete to hurl at each other, while others ripped pieces of metal off a construction site to use as weapons. Moments later, gunfire exploded near the museum, then quickly subsided. About 50 men on horseback crashed through the remaining cordons, followed by trucks that were driven into the center of the square as a way of breaking up the human barriers formed by the protesters.

As dusk fell, Molotov cocktails were thrown across the square, sparking fires in several places as street battles raged. A military helicopter circled overhead, while men below faced off with knives, bricks, pieces of metal and any other weapons they could find.

Long after dark, the uproar on the streets outside my hotel continued, punctuated by regular gunshots. There would be sporadic gunfire, sometimes heavy, for about two more hours. Flares shot into the dark sky around 7:30 p.m., and fires burned around the square, the result of Molotov cocktails. At one point, plainclothes police officers burst into my room, demanding to know whether I was photographing the mayhem from the balcony. And for the first time since I started covering the protests, I saw emergency vehicles — 10 ambulances — wailing through the streets, carrying the injured away.

Around 8 p.m., about five hours after the fighting began, Abubakr Makhlouf, 33, a high-tech businessman I had met in the square, told me by phone that he and others in the square had discovered a police identification card on one of the pro-Mubarak demonstrators. He said it confirmed their suspicious that the crowd had been sent by the government to provoke violence. Said Makhlouf: "We dragged him out over to the military, who took him out of the square."

Makhlouf also said he was pelted with pieces of concrete while standing "on the front line" but escaped further harm by sneaking around the back until he reached a makeshift doctors' station that was set up on a side street. He said he bled profusely from his head and received three stitches on an eyebrow. But he feared that there might be far worse violence overnight. "There are thousands, thousands, thousands of people inside the square," he said.

Later during the night, Mustafa Yusry, an assistant university professor, called me from the center of Tahrir Square, where he had been protesting all day. He said the fighting was concentrated around the Egyptian Museum on the northern end of the space. "Stones are being thrown, and guys from outside are trying to enter the square," he said. "They have been throwing petrol bombs on our people, and the military is not intervening." He said protesters were running from one entrance to the other to keep the pro-Mubarak crowds from getting in. "There are a lot of injuries," he said.

Shortly after 10 p.m., the military appeared to begin an assault on the area around the Egyptian Museum. I heard heavy rounds of automatic gunfire. Hundreds of pro-Mubarak supporters seemed to be fleeing the square in terror, running through the streets and over the 6 October Bridge, trying to escape the scene. Tracer fire could be seen shooting up into the night sky. Around 11:15 p.m., I saw a barricade of metal siding erected around the site of where the battle had begun in the afternoon; anti- and pro-Mubarak forces were tossing Molotov cocktails back and forth at each other.

All along, the military had been at the square. Indeed, since Jan. 28, about 20 military tanks had cordoned off the area, keeping the peace after the regime's brutal police force was withdrawn from the streets. Just moments before the street battles began on Wednesday, I saw Egyptians with their children clambering atop the tanks to have their picture taken with smiling soldiers. Earlier, demonstrators had stuck lilies and roses in gun barrels, in a sign of how peaceful the protests were.

By Wednesday, the flowers were gone. As the Mubarak loyalists threatened to break into the square, the anti-government demonstrators began to argue among themselves about how to stop the President's supporters from joining the protests and even whether it was wise to do so, given that one of their key demands is for freedom of expression. At one point, while I was still in the square, a demonstrator carrying a small backpack that had been abandoned ran by in panic, fearing it was booby-trapped. A soldier checked it and declared it harmless. As a group of anti-government demonstrators screamed, "Go home! Go home!," to the pro-Mubarak crowds at the square's entry points, a woman shouted to me, "It was Mubarak's aim to divide people."

The President's concession that he would not run for a new term in September may have sapped some of the resolve of the opposition. "With Mubarak's speech on Tuesday night, he addressed the people's needs," said Mohamed Labib, 29, an advertising account manager who had come with his friends to join the protests. "It's a good time for us to change Presidents, but we need some time. He cannot leave immediately." That kind of talk, however, has only fueled anger among other protesters. "He needs to leave now. Or yesterday," said Mohamed Sheaila, 28. "We want no more of him."

At one point, hundreds of protesters formed a human chain around the square, attempting to keep their foes away. "Mubarak is a dictator," Abdel Salaam Hagag, a 31-year-old protester in the cordon, told me. "We won't leave this square until Mubarak has gone. He has sent these people to fight us. He gave them money and drugs." In fact, it was not clear how Wednesday's pro-Mubarak crowds were organized, though it was likely facilitated by the NDP, whose organization extends deep into Egyptian society.

In a phone interview with TIME's Aryn Baker, Mostafa Higazy, an engineering professor at Ain Shams University in Cairo, said Wednesday's appearance of a pro-Mubarak crowd had nothing to do with popular support and everything to do with the Egyptian regime's calling in its thugs. The regime has long relied on baltagy, thugs for hire, to do its bidding, from quashing overly rambunctious election rallies to breaking up peaceful protests that are regularly seen around various government ministries. Egyptians say that in many cases, the baltagy are petty criminals who were released from jail on the condition that they work for the government when needed. Said Higazy, who added that he is not a member of any party: "These men are not supporting Mubarak. They are thugs paid to go and injure and kill people [who are] peacefully practicing their freedom of speech."

Higazy said the Tahrir Square movement would not be deterred: "We will stay until Mubarak goes. He cannot kill 80 million Egyptians. He can hire thugs and brainwash them with money, but he can't kill us all. This is an uprising for the freedom and dignity and justice that he took away from us."

With reporting by Aryn Baker / Beirut