Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Mubarak Supporters Battle Protesters

[5egypt0202] Ben Curtis/Associated Press

Pro-government demonstrators, below, and antigovernment demonstrators, above, clashed in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Wednesday.

The political unrest gripping Cairo turned ugly Wednesday, as groups of supporters of President Hosni Mubarak charged antigovernment protesters, underscoring the difficulty of a smooth democratic transition to a post-Mubarak Egypt.

Bloody clashes in the city's main square escalated through the day, after Mr. Mubarak said Tuesday night he would step down after elections this year—angering protesters who demanded his immediate resignation after 29 years in power.

WSJ's Margaret Coker reports from Cairo clashes between pro- and anti-government protesters are spreading despite calls from the military for the protesters to disperse.

Newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman called for protesters to pull out of the square, and said protests must end before any dialogue between the regime and the opposition could begin, according to state media reports.

But opposition groups have refused to end protests until Mr. Mubarak tenders his immediate resignation.

Supporters of both sides faced off Wednesday, chanting slogans at each other, fighting and hurling missiles. Protesters at two entrances to Tahrir Square—by the Egyptian Museum and the route from downtown Cairo—came under attack from men heaving rocks and running into them with horses and camels.

The clashes marked a dangerous new phase for the confrontations. Earlier Wednesday, an army spokesman appeared on state television to ask protesters to return home to help restore order. The army said one soldier died Wednesday, and the Health Ministry said 600 were injured, according to statements on state television.

The Obama administration condemned the violence spurred by pro-Mubarak forces. "We are deeply concerned about attacks on the media and peaceful demonstrators," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement.

Egypt's Strongman

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Israel's prime minister said Iran wants to take advantage of the chaos to create "another Gaza" in Egypt, run by Islamic fundamentalists.

Speaking before the Israeli parliament, Benjamin Netanyahu said he expects any new government in Egypt to honor its three-decade-long peace agreement with Israel, the Associated Press reported. But he warned that Islamic groups have already taken over by democratic means in Iran, Lebanon and Gaza.

In Cairo, Mubarak supporter Sayed Mohammed Sayed, 37 years old, said the protesters pushed things too far by refusing to back down after the president agreed to pursue reforms and eventually step down.

"The situation is unacceptable," the air-conditioner technician said. "The majority of protesters are young people and aren't aware of their actions and consequences."

Journal Photos: Egypt Rises Up

David Degner for The Wall Street Journal

In Al-Arish, a town in northern Sinai near the border with Israel, a group of protesters took to the streets after prayers in solidarity with protests in Cairo.

Egypt Protests Wednesday

Ahmed Alil/Associated Press

Regional Upheaval

A succession of rallies and demonstrations, in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Algeria have been inspired directly by the popular outpouring of anger that toppled Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. See how these uprising progressed.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the leader of the opposition's loose coalition, said in an interview that he had heard government supporters were sending men to Tahrir Square to attack protesters and warned against acts of violence. Attacks on demonstrators, he charged, would make it difficult to conduct negotiations with "a regime that is a bunch of thugs."

At the downtown entrance to the square, groups of Mubarak supporters started organizing charges, running up and down the street creating mayhem. Protesters responded by forming a human barrier three to four people deep to keep the Mubarak supporters out.

Mohamed Abdu, a 22-year-old graduate of Helwan University and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an opposition group, grew visibly shaken as the men began hurling rocks over the human barricade. One man on the protesters' side pulled out a pair of large light bulbs from his backpack and threw them at the Mubarak supporters. He was quickly shouted down by protesters chanting "peace."

Ibrahim Saadouni, 47, a lawyer who joined the protests, said he believed the violence was started by the thugs for hire that are a standard feature of Egyptian electoral politics. "They've come to create a civil war," Mr. Saadouni said. "They're doing this to make war so the army will step in to end the demonstrations, because we won't leave."

There were no signs of intervention by the police or military even when a number of men marched to Tahrir Square on camels and horseback and began running into people, as well as hitting and whipping them. A few minutes later, they were stopped by protesters opposed to the president.

"They forced the people to get off the horses and the camels, and they have beaten them badly," said Muhammad Khalifa, a translator.

Other witnesses said pro-Mubarak protesters tore down banners denouncing the president as they advanced across Tahrir Square.

Some witnesses said they saw members on both sides hitting each other with sticks. Some came away injured, with their heads bleeding.

In some areas, reporters were attacked by those who believe that the long-time ruler deserves to remain power.

The clashes in Cairo were a reminder of the high stakes for the many Egyptians who have benefited from the regime and rely on it for work or status. Many pro-Mubarak demonstrators also expressed skepticism about the motives of the opposition and its leaders.

From the Archives

Dominic Nahr for The Wall Street Journal
Jason Larkin for The Wall Street Journal

"We don't want ElBaradei or any American agent," said Hisham Zain, 38. "We want to continue with Mubarak until stability is formed and the end of his presidency. We want the presidency to be changed in a peaceful and smooth way."

The scene was dramatically than the almost carnival-like atmosphere that prevailed in Tahrir Square on Tuesday. Some 250,000 protesters turned out for a rally, many with their families in tow.

In Alexandria, Egypt's conservative second city, thousands of supporters of Mr. Mubarak displaced antigovernment protesters from around the Ibrahim mosque in the center of the city Wednesday, a gathering place for recent protests. But furious arguments and pushing and shoving hadn't come to blows by evening.

The two sides clashed late the night before, after Mr. Mubarak's televised speech, when witnesses said dozens of his supporters began throwing rocks at the antigovernment crowd. The army fired shots into the air in an effort to break up that fighting. On Wednesday, the two sides largely avoided each other as they criss-crossed the city through the afternoon.

"There won't be calm until Mubarak is gone. Take Mubarak out and Egypt will be stable again," said Samir Mohammed, a 45-year-old manager of a pharmaceuticals factory. "Wait until Friday," he added. "Friday's demonstration will be huge."

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