Vicious battles rage between thugs unleashed by the government and pro-democracy activists
Cairo feels like the chaotic scene of a revolution half-finished, as the Egyptian regime continues its desperate attempt to hold on to power at any cost. As I write this piece, vicious street battles between thugs unleashed by the government and pro-democracy protesters continue to rage a few blocks away. While the United States and the United Nations keep calling for restraint on “all sides,” the means of violence are weighted heavily towards one side, the state-sponsored thugs, many of them undercover security forces. As I climbed up on to the rooftop of an abandoned building overlooking the fighting on the 6th of October bridge and Abdel Moneim Riad Square, I saw the pro-government side raining petrol bombs down on the anti-government protesters. The latter responded with slingshots and rocks they dug out of the ground with their bare hands. One woman hammering on the asphalt road to break it up into fist-sized rocks said she was willing to fight until death but she wanted President Hosni Mubarak to leave the country. Over and over again, people across downtown Cairo repeated this sentiment, from men with bloodied faces rushing back to the frontlines, to volunteers handing out water and food, to medics running make-shift clinics to help the steady stream of the wounded. All the while, army tanks stood still amidst both sets of advancing crowds, firing an occasional warning shot into the air. Suddenly, more rapid gunfire erupted, and people ran for cover on the streets below me, before moving back to the frontline, armed with more rocks. It was unclear whether the gunshots were coming from the military tanks, snipers, or pro-government thugs, but they seemed to be directed at the anti-government protests. I rushed down from the rooftop as the firing got louder and passed dozens of makeshift clinics, overwhelmed with wounded protesters.
Walking back away from what seemed like the frontlines of a battle zone, two plainclothesmen outside the Egyptian museum stopped me and my colleagues, who were carrying video cameras, and asked for identification. I first assumed they were part of yet another checkpoint set up by popular committees across the city and was ready to oblige, but then they asked for our press identification. My guard went up as no one else had demanded press credentials, and within a few moments it was clear that these two men were actually with Egypt's secret intelligence service, the dreaded “mukhabarat.” They tried to stop us from proceeding and wanted to take us in for more questioning. We managed to get out of the situation in the nick of time after promising to not film in the square, but other journalists were not so lucky. All week, Al Jazeera journalists have been operating in secret after they were ordered out of the country and their broadcast taken off the air. Numerous Egyptian and international journalists have been arrested and roughed up since the protests began. On Thursday morning rumours abounded that the army had orders to arrest all foreign journalists. Indeed, by the end of the day, the government had detained an unknown number of international journalists even as pro-government thugs raided at least one hotel in downtown Cairo where many journalists are staying.
Downtown Cairo is now a war zone, but two nights ago, at the end of the million-person march, the aptly-named liberation or Tahrir Square indeed felt like a liberated space, one that had finally torn off the shackles of Mr. Mubarak's 30-year-long dictatorship. There was no police anywhere, the army had pledged not to use force against the protesters, and the square and surrounding streets were packed with tens of thousands of people. The mood was joyous, despite the memorials to the over 100 people who had been killed in clashes with the state security forces since the anti-government demonstrations began the previous week. Hundreds were curled up in blankets, camping out in the centre of the square, while thousands of men, women, and children milled around, chatting, taking pictures, holding up posters urging Mr. Mubarak to leave, all the while chanting loudly “We're not leaving, he will leave.” Vendors had set up make-shift stalls selling hot tea and snacks, and the roadside coffee shops were full of men and women talking late into the night. The atmosphere was almost carnivalesque.
Later that night, when President Mubarak's addressed the nation, he made it clear he was not leaving in a hurry and failed to address any of the concrete demands of the protesters, from lifting the Emergency Law to raising the minimum wage to changing the constitution to allow free and fair elections. The reaction in the square, as people watched the speech on a giant screen, was one of fury and a renewed resolve to demand nothing less than the ouster of Mr. Mubarak and his regime. But few anticipated the brutal assault that the next day would bring from pro-government thugs masquerading as a popular movement in favour of Mr. Mubarak.
The mood is now sombre, as the number of the dead and the wounded continues to rise following Wednesday's violence. But the determination of the pro-democracy crowds who are still in the streets does not appear to be shaken. Thousands camped out in Tahrir Square say they want the uprising to go on despite the heavy costs of what they describe as the government's scare tactics. Although the Mubarak regime is not quite gone, for many Egyptians, their newfound courage to come out onto the streets and steadfastly protest the oppressive regime they've lived under for three decades is proof enough that they've pushed Egypt into a new era.
(Anjali Kamat is a correspondent for Democracy Now, New York)