Taken into Custody by the Thugs of Cairo

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Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Protesters throw stones at Mubarak supporters in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, on Feb. 3, 2011

The Egyptian government denies that it had anything to do with orchestrating attacks against democracy protesters by crowds supporting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But during my attempt to reach the protests, it became clear not only that the police are doing nothing to stop groups of angry men from openly carrying weapons, but also that they are in command of them. Crossing the Nile at October 6th bridge to work my way into Tahrir from the north, I was grabbed by a young man who threatened me with a stick and tried to drag me over to what appeared to be an improvised gang checkpoint cutting off the tree-lined avenue that runs along the river. I turned to a nearby policemen for help, who merely told me "Go."

More young men arrived, and they punched and frog-marched me to a wall where there were several others being held by the crowd, including a pair of Russian journalists, a Lebanese video crew, a kid who had been caught with anti-Mubarak signs, men with Islamic-style beards, and a poor Nigerian house cleaner who had left home without a passport and whom one raving brute in the crowd accused of being a drug dealer. "Mubarak good, the Egyptian system good!" he shouted at us, though it was hard to see from his decaying teeth, tattered clothes, and yellowed toenails that the Egyptian system had done him much good.

The presence of an Egyptian army tank crew kept and foot soldiers kept things from getting to rowdy. The Egyptian army officer corps appears to be siding with the government, calling on the democracy protesters to go home in the name in the name of stopping violence that the government itself created, and standing by as thugs have attacked the peaceful protests. But the foot soldiers near me seemed much more sympathetic to the demonstrations. On learning that I was American and might have inside information, one soldier asked me — eagerly it seemed — if the Mubarak regime was going to fall. But he refused my request to intervene.

The checkpoint turned out to be run by the police, with the deputized gang providing muscle. The crowd forced me to produce press ID which, which they turned over to uniformed cops. They in turn delivered my ID to a plainclothes Internal Security officer, who, with a leather trench coat and walkie-talkie looked like he had come straight from central casting. Eventually, he interrogated me and told me that the whole Tahrir Square area was forbidden. On his orders, the gang released me, and now, all smiles and backslapping, one walked me back over the bridge, swinging his club along the way.

Whether or not the government tactics will prove successfully ultimately remains to be seen. Beleagured Tahrir square protestors have complained of being cut off from medical attention, food and water. Many average Cairenes, while not necessarily sympathetic to the regime, are worried about a descent into chaos and economic collapse. The fact that the protests started at the beginning of the tourist season is a disaster to the 11% of the economy tied to foreign visitors who, after scenes of civil war played on televisions worldwide, will no doubt stay away for months. The mid-range downtown tourist hotel where I have been staying is otherwise completely empty, and its staff are praying the protests would end.

But there are still some 50,000 anti-government protestors in Tahrir Square, according to Wael Nawara, Secretary General of Al Gahd, an opposition party, who is there himself and blogging in English and Arabic at weeklite. He and other opposition leaders are calling for another day of protests after Friday Prayers tomorrow, but he doesn't expect the regime to go quietly. "After what he have seen in the last few days, we don't know what to expect. The government has tried everything from tear gas, to Molotov cocktails to terrorist squads. The government is willing to do anything. So we expect the worst."