A first-person account of Egypt's night of hope and shame.
Throughout the night they fought pitched battles. As darkness fell on Wednesday and the orange-hued streetlights came alive, the final showdown for Tahrir (liberation) Square had started. It was a face-off between thousands of angry supporters of Hosni Mubarak, President of Egypt for 30 years, and hundreds of pro-democracy activists.
The President's men — of which many, the opposition said, citing seized identification cards, were undercover policemen — began hurling Molotov cocktails. Those firebombs in bottles fell in a flaming arc into the midst of the anti-Mubarak camp, lighting small fires. But the opponents of the government responded bottle-for-bottle, and the battle for Tahrir Square wore on through the night. There was no decisive outcome, however.
With their backs to the wall, the activists for democracy fought the pro-government assault with grit and tenacity. They included some of Egypt's finest minds — filmmakers, intellectuals, young tech-savvy diehards… They had to fight, as Mr. Mubarak's armed gangs had cordoned them off by blocking key lanes that led into the square.
From an overhead bridge overlooking the square, which Mr. Mubarak's men had occupied, the activists faced a steady barrage of rocks. These were being pulled out from the pavements that had been earlier torn apart. The tit-for-tat battles with flying rocks continued through the night.
Digging themselves in, those still at the square raised makeshift barricades of what appeared to be metal sheets. This was their outer line of defence, on the periphery of the square. Deeper inside, a mosque had been turned into a virtual field hospital. There, doctor-volunteers attended to the injured who had begun arriving in a regular stream as the battle wore on.
A “citizen's police” had emerged, and its members detained some in the pro-Mubarak camp who tried to enter the square. Eyewitnesses said that the response to the detainees from people in the square was usually mixed. Some of them heatedly called for heavy and summary punishment, while others advocated a non-violent handover to the passive army that stood nearby. The latter argument usually prevailed.
By daybreak on Thursday, steady bursts of firing could be heard over the square, and details of casualties began to flood in. It was established by the Egyptian Health Ministry, perhaps conservatively, that five people were killed and nearly 900 injured in the clashes. But despite the heavy toll, the protesters at Tahrir Square were steadfast. As the sun rose in a haze over the Egyptian capital, they had defied a brutal assault by their foes for nearly 24 hours.
The battle for Tahrir Square has been much more than an exercise for the control of prized territory. It is a reflection of an existential tussle between an old authoritarian order of stability — essentially underwritten since the time of modern Egypt's founding father Gamal Abdel Nasser and represented by a paternalistic military — and a people's pro-democracy movement that now wants to occupy political centre stage.
It was therefore not surprising that the military, which is likely to face incremental marginalisation if the pro-democracy movement triumphs, went into a shell once the street battles on Wednesday started, despite having facilitated peaceful pro-democracy protests the previous day. The arrival of what eventually could turn out to be state-sponsored pro-Mubarak mobs — armed with sticks, rods and knives — to be let loose on peaceful protesters, has tested the limits to which the military would go to facilitate the birth of a genuine democracy led by Egypt's youth. By doing nothing to prevent the bloodletting since Wednesday afternoon, the military had spoken: it was part of the old order, led by Mr. Mubarak, a former air force commander, and one of its own.
The fighting has, however, exposed a salient weakness in the pro-democracy movement as well. A steely shadow political leadership capable of delivering modern democracy to Egypt has still not emerged. Only such a leadership can reflect the aspirations of a courageous youthful movement that is being hounded by a tyrannical and bloody minded regime that is fast nearing its eclipse.