The Fighting Rages On in Tahrir Square

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Chris Hondros / AFP / Getty Images

Anti-government protesters taunt and throw rocks at pro-government supporters near a highway overpass on the edge of Tahrir Square the afternoon of February 3, 2011 in Cairo.

Updated: Feb. 3, 2011, 8:00 p.m. Cairo Time

I am waiting for the next turn in the almost primitive civil war in the streets of Cairo.

Shortly after 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, I heard bursts of heavy automatic gunfire below my hotel window, which is just outside the Egyptian Museum on the edge of Tahrir Square, where pro-regime forces have besieged the anti-government protesters. By mid-afternoon, the front line at the square, which the protesters had maintained through the night and most of the day, had been broken, sending their besiegers backwards. The opponents of the regime took their metal barricades and pushed the new front across the highway to the very doorstep of the hotel from which I followed the action. With little security at the hotel driveway, about 100 fighters faced off below my balcony, hurling rocks and two Molotov cocktails at each other. The two groups were separated by just a few feet. Then heavy gunfire exploded from what appeared to be two different places deeper downtown, as dozens of men, both pro- and anti- regime, ran down the highway, which had been closed to traffic.

Within minutes, a group of six young men came tearing back towards Tahrir Square, carrying a body on their shoulders — a man who appeared to be in his 30s, dressed in a maroon sweater. Minutes later came a second group carrying another body. The street fighting had spread across a wider swathe of downtown Cairo, encircling much of the hotel.

By evening, it was clear that the building — home to about 300 foreign journalists for the past week — had grown intensely insecure. Hotel managers slipped two notices under all the journalists' doors, ordering them not to mention the hotel name in any report. A second letter detailed evacuation plans. The battle for the Square that began on Wednesday is not yet over.

When dawn broke on Thursday behind what was then the frontlines in Tahrir Square, the scene was already one of disaster and casualty, as bloodied young men lay slumped on the ground after their 15-hour battle with pro-government loyalists, while others crafted new weapons, ready to distribute to the fresh infusion of young men who had arrived to join them.

As I walked behind the barricades separating the anti-government protesters and President Hosni Mubarak's supporters, it was clear the fighting was far from over. About 10,000 people still occupied the square early on Thursday morning, and by 9 a.m. many more began pouring into the area through the sole chokepoint still open on the square's perimeter.

The fighting that went on through Wednesday night and into Thursday — which began when thousands of Mubarak supporters converged on the huge crowd occupying Tahrir Square — involved creating makeshift armies overnight, as young men hurriedly organized themselves into battle shifts. Abdallah Khaled, 26, a screenwriter, said about 20,000 men in the square took turns fighting throughout the night, mindful that they could not afford to flag. "We got stones by breaking the ground, [using] rounds of people," he said. "Others took turns carrying the stones. When you became tired from fighting, you had to wait for someone to come relieve you before you could fall back." A fourth group kept watch for snipers, who they said were perched on the highway overpass overlooking the Egyptian Museum.

Doctors in a makeshift trauma center set up in an alleyway on the south-eastern edge of Tahrir Square — about 300 yards from the frontline — told me on Thursday morning that five men had been killed by sniper fire at about 4.30 a.m.; residents in my hotel had been jolted out of bed at that hour by heavy gunfire. "I insist they were professional snipers, because the shooting was in the same place," says Mahmoud Abdelrahmen, 30, an ear, nose and throat surgeon at Cairo University, pointing to his left temple; he had tended to the injured throughout Wednesday night. "It was not by chance, it was by professional snipers," he said, adding that they were likely using pistols.

On the frontline at dawn, behind the metal barricades set up by the young fighters, three men swung a pickaxe at the traffic island next to the Egyptian Museum, smashing the asphalt into big chunks to use the pieces as projectiles. The ground near the frontline is now entirely carpeted with rocks. I saw a man prize a metal rod loose from a piece of construction debris, and then grab a square piece of wood to use as a shield. "This is to protect against rocks," he said, as he made his way closer to the fighting. Groups of men throughout the square filled burlap sacks with rocks the size of grapefruits, then distributed the bags to others, to carry to the frontline. Still others arrived with plastic bags filled with bread rolls and chewing gum — an impromptu form of military rations.

Then at 9 a.m. came Thursday's first battle cry. It began with a rhythmic banging sound, as one man beat a pipe against the metal pole at the entrance to Cairo's underground train station. Then another joined in, banging a rock against a lamppost. And then dozens of men began whistling through their teeth, calling men to battle as they waved their hands, gesturing for hundreds to come forward.

Soldiers watched impassively from the gun turrets of the tanks, as the fighters made their way to the frontline. Khaled, the screenwriter, said many protesters were angry at the army for failing to intervene on Wednesday, but that he and others believed it was a wise decision. "The army must never start shooting," he said, "because then it would be a very, very big mess and many people will die."

In one corner of the square, protesters have gathered confiscated police-identity cards, and allege that the pro-Mubarak fighters include many of the police whose numbers melted away last Friday after they opened fire on protesters, killing several. I saw six police cards, and several confiscated makeshift weapons, including metal pipes and a tear-gas canister, laid out on a plastic sheet.

Although I saw dozens of Salafist Muslims in short trousers and long beards making their way to battle at about 9.30 a.m. the protesters — who on Wednesday became fighters — are now an extraordinarily varied group. Among them are school teachers, construction workers, businessmen — and even a Denver, Colorado real-estate agent, Marwan Massad, who told me that he had joined the fight on Wednesday while on a visit to Cairo to see his parents, feeling that he was "just wanting to be part of the popular movement."

As the young fighters gathered at the frontline, a crowd of men caught Kamal Ahmed, a young man carrying a police-identity card and dragged him through the square, beating him with their fists, until they reached the opposite end, where they handed him over to a leading activist perched on a metal railing. It is not clear what happened to Ahmed after that.