POSTED: 10:51 a.m. HST, Feb 03, 2011
CAIRO >> Protesters and government supporters fought in a second day of rock-throwing battles at a central Cairo square while more lawlessness spread around the city. New looting and arson erupted, and gangs of thugs supporting President Hosni Mubarak attacked reporters, foreigners and rights workers while the army rounded up foreign journalists.
As bruised and bandaged protesters danced in victory after forcing back Mubarak loyalists attacking Tahrir Square, the government increasingly spread an image that foreigners were fueling the turmoil and supporting the unprecedented wave of demonstrations demanding the ouster of Mubarak, the country's ruler for nearly three decades.
"When there are demonstrations of this size, there will be foreigners who come and take advantage and they have an agenda to raise the energy of the protesters," Vice President Omar Suleiman said in an interview on state TV.
In an interview with ABC News, Mubarak said he wants to leave office now, but cannot for fear the country will sink deeper into chaos. He blamed the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, an opposition group, for the violence.
"I was very unhappy about yesterday," Mubarak told ABC's Christiane Amanpour. "I do not want to see Egyptians fighting each other."
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley condemned what he called "a concerted campaign to intimidate international journalists in Cairo."
Pro-government mobs beat foreign journalists with sticks outside downtown Tahrir Square, smashing equipment. Dozens of journalists, including ones from The Washington Post and The New York Times, were reported detained by security forces. One Greek print journalist was stabbed in the leg with a screwdriver, and a photographer was punched in the face. The Arabic news network Al-Arabiya pleaded for the army to protect its offices and journalists, and Al-Jazeera said two of its correspondents were attacked.
Human rights activists were also targeted. Military police stormed the offices of an Egyptian rights groups as activists were meeting and arrested at least 30, including two from the London-based Amnesty International, Amnesty spokesman Tom Mackey said.
Aid group Oxfam said eight employees, including two directors, were arrested in raids Thursday. New York-based Human Rights Watch said one of its activists was among those arrested.
"We call for the immediate and safe release of our colleagues and others with them who should be able to monitor the human rights situation in Egypt at this crucial time without fear of harassment or detention," said Amnesty's secretary-general, Salil Shetty.
Lawlessness that had largely eased since the weekend flared anew. A fire raged in a major supermarket outside Sheikh Zayed, a suburb of the capital, and looters ransacked the building. A residential building neighboring a 5-star hotel on the Nile River corniche was also ablaze, blocks from Tahrir. Other fires erupted in the Cairo district of Shubra, north of the center, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The military and the security forces appeared to be doing little to stop either the looting or the clashes around Tahrir. In the interview, Suleiman said without elaborating that the police had "lost some of its capabilities" and that the army — the main force on the streets of the capital — was struggling to fill the void.
The military is "shouldering duties that are new to it, enforcing the curfew and protecting citizens from thuggery and outlaws," he said. "It's a huge burden on the armed forces to carry out police role that it didn't have before."
Under an onslaught of international condemnation for Wednesday's assault on protesters by pro-Mubarak rioters, the government offered a series of gestures, trying to calm the fury. Protesters accuse the government of organizing paid thugs and police in civilian clothes to attack them Wednesday afternoon, sparking the violence that raged until Thursday night.
The prime minister apologized for Wednesday's assault and acknowledged it may have been organized, though he said he didn't know by whom. Suleiman promised that 82-year-old Mubarak's son, Gamal, would not run to succeed his father in presidential elections in September and offered to hold negotiations on the country's future even with the Muslim Brotherhood.
But the gestures — which would have been stunning only a month ago — appeared likely to be drowned out by the chaos around Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, where over the past 10 days tens of thousands have demanded Mubarak's immediate ouster.
"Hosni Mubarak's every breath is a lie," said Assem Moussa, a 40-year-old businessman. "All the promises and the concessions are part of the lies. He is trying to deceive the people." Moussa pulled a white cloth out of his pocket, saying, "This is my funeral shroud. If I die here, I will die for our freedom."
The anti-Mubarak movement has vowed to intensify protests. In a speech Tuesday night, Mubarak refused to step down, saying he would serve out the remaining seven months of his term — a halfway concession rejected by the protesters.
At least eight people have been killed and hundreds wounded in the fighting in and around Tahrir. In a sign of the economic impact of the turmoil, Suleiman said 1 million foreign tourists fled over the past nine days, costing $1 billion in lost revenues from one of Egypt's most important industries.
Thursday's fighting centered on and under a highway overpass about 500 yards north of the square's center that pro-government attackers had used as a high ground to rain down stones and firebombs. Anti-Mubarak protesters surged from the square in the afternoon in volleys of stones, bottles and metal bars, chasing their foes around the fly-over.
At one point, a police truck barreled wildly through the crowds under the bridge, mowing down several people in its path, according to footage aired on Al-Jazeera. Heavy barrages of gunfire were heard from time to time, and at least one wounded person was carried away.
After night fell, the fighting died down with protesters largely in control of the bridge and their hold on the square itself unchallenged. Nearly 10,000 remained in the square, some dancing and singing in victory as others — battered and bandaged — drank tea or slept in the center of the rubble-strewn roundabout.
"Thank God, we managed to protect the whole area," said Abdul-Rahman, a taxi driver who was among thousands who hunkered in the square through Wednesday night against the thousands besieging the entrances. "We prevented the pro-Mubarak people from storming the streets leading to the square."
He refused to give his full name.
The fighting underlined the unclear position of the Egyptian military. During the battles Wednesday and into the following night, they stood by without interfering. They only moved into action Thursday morning, after heavy barrages of automatic gunfire over the course of two hours before dawn killed five protesters.
Four tanks cleared the highway overpass and several hundred soldiers on the streets below lined up between the two sides, pushing the pro-government fighters back and blocking the main battle lines in front of the famed Egyptian Museum and at other entrances to the square. For several hours after, more protesters streamed into the square to support those who had fought through the night.
But when clashes resumed in the afternoon, soldiers again disappeared from the streets, moving inside their tanks and armored vehicles without intervening.
During Thursday's fighting, bands of Mubarak supporters moved through side streets around Tahrir, trading volleys of stone-throwing with protesters and attacking cars to stop supplies from reaching the protest camp. One band stopped a car, ripped open the trunk and found boxes of juice, water and food, which they took before forcing the driver to flee.
The Mubarak backers seethed with anger at a protest movement that state TV and media have depicted as paralyzing businesses and livelihoods. "You in Tahrir are the reason we can't live a normal life," one screamed as he threw stones.
Every once in a while in the fighting, protesters would wrestle a Mubarak supporter to the ground, search him for an ID, then raise an identity card in the air that they said proved he was a police officer or ruling party member.
The anti-Mubarak youths posted sentries on the roofs and balconies of buildings around the square to raise the alert of any approaching attackers and rain stones on them. Other lookouts banged metal poles against pedestrian barriers to raise the alarm when they saw Mubarak backers.
One sentry waved his arms in the air like an airport runway traffic controller, directing defenders carrying piles of stones as ammunition to a side street to fend off an assault. But then another sentry waved a hand across his chest horizontally in a new signal. The crowd understood: false alarm, and they melted back into the square.
Many of those leading the defense had cotton padding and grubby bandages dangling from their faces, arms and legs. Many had chunks of rock stuck to their hair and clumps of dust in their beards. A large number had the trimmed beards of Muslim conservatives, a sign of how the Muslim Brotherhood had a major role in the fight.
Mubarak said he would not run for re-election in September. His top ally, the United States, has pressed him to quickly transition to a democratic government but said his earlier gestures were insufficient.
On Thursday, authorities offered new concessions. Prosecutors announced an assets freeze and travel ban against the former interior minister, Habib el-Adly, whose police forces led a fierce crackdown against the protests when they initially broke out on Jan. 25. Similar measures were announced against the former housing and tourism ministers, unpopular millionaire businessmen.
Suleiman told journalists he had invited the Muslim Brotherhood to enter negotiations with the government. He said the Brotherhood remains "hesitant" but underlined that it was a "valuable opportunity" for the fundamentalist movement.
The Brotherhood, which calls for an Islamic state in Egypt, is the top political opponent of Mubarak's government, which has always rejected contact with the group and has launched heavy campaigns of arrests against it. The Brotherhood is among the many disparate groups organizing the protests, though secular activists have so far dominated the movement. All have rejected dialogue with the government before Mubarak steps down.
Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq acknowledged that the attack "seemed to have been organized" and said elements had infiltrated what began as a demonstration against the protesters to turn it violent. But he said he did not know who, promising an investigation.
"I offer my apology for everything that happened yesterday because it's neither logical nor rational," Shafiq told state TV.
Shafiq, a former air force general appointed by Mubarak over the weekend, defended Mubarak's plan to serve out the rest of his term. "Would it be dignified for a nation for its president to leave immediately?" Shafiq said. "There are ethics that must be observed."