Eyewitness Egypt: day of confrontation
2 February, 2011
It was 3am and groups of several hundred men were roaming the backstreets of downtown Cairo, near Mohammad Nageeb station. Their cries, reverberating into the early morning sky, had none of the hallmarks of previous protest chants. One group, around 50 men, were driving cars, honking horns and yelling: ‘Mubarak, our father.’
These were Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s supporters.
By 2pm thousands of these protestors had surrounded Midan Tahrir, the focal point of anti-government protests for the past nine days, blocking off all the arterial roads leading out of the square. Men rode horses through the anti-government protestors gathered in the square, trampling people. Motorbikes screamed through the streets and patriotic songs blared from car speakers.
The protest lacked all of the organic warmth of the anti-government protests of the past nine days, protests characterized by a demographic encompassing all aspects of Egyptian society: lawyers, doctors, accountants, storekeepers, the unemployed, taxi drivers, elderly and young, women and children.
Following the routing of Hosni Mubarak’s security forces on the fourth and fifth day of protests, an almost jovial atmosphere had taken hold of the protestors calling for Mubarak’s resignation. Journalists walked largely unhindered among the people in the square.
By contrast, these pro-government protestors were mostly very rough looking men between the ages of around 20 and 40. Their chants and slogans were crude and guttural, their attitude was one of extreme aggression.
Reports were emerging of journalists being stabbed by pro-Government supporters. Rumours that the security forces were re-organising behind the scenes had proliferated over the past days, as the armed forces maintained calm among the anti-government supporters. Looting was blamed on men who had been caught carrying state security identification cards.
Opposition leader Mohamad al-Baredei claimed that Mubarak was employing ‘scare tactics’, sending out members of his security forces onto the streets.
At around 2.45pm they had opened up numerous fronts against the protestors gathered in Midan Tahrir, essentially trapping the crowd – including a number of children – in the square.
A group of several hundred Mubarak supporters gathered on Sharia Talaat Harb and began marching towards the protestors in Midan Tahrir. I followed them down the road as they chanted, Egyptian flags billowing out beside pictures of Hosni Mubarak. They charged at a line of protestors, hurling rocks.
Within seconds the street had turned into a battle ground. Thousands of rocks flew through the sky and arced down on protestors from both sides. One man spat bloodied and shattered teeth out onto the streets as he ran.
I scrambled into a small alley about a block away from Midan Tahrir. Around 100 pro-Mubarak supporters stood there. They looked at me silently, before letting me walk past. They held bats and sticks and knives. One man’s fingers strained around the handle of a large meat-cleaver, his skin stretched taught over his knuckles.
One man told me that the anti-government supporters had brought shame on the Egyptian people. ‘Where will our country be without him? He has given us everything.’
A man scrambled into the alley, blood pouring out from a gash behind his left ear. It looked like a chunk of skin had been cleaved from out of his head.
The situation deteriorated rapidly in downtown Cairo’s backstreets. The clashes were frenzied, extremely violent and fluid; protestors advancing and retreating. Running down to the end of the alleyway and out onto another street, the scenes were repeated. Men carried sticks with nails driven through them, machetes.
I followed another group of pro-government protestors down to Midan Tahrir as rocks smashed into the buildings around us or broke into the crowd. I hid behind a car and tried to move back into another alley. A young man began screaming at me, telling me to leave. He reached forward and tore my notepad from my hands.
By 6pm, Cairo’s backstreets were transformed into a no-go area and an estimated 500 people had been injured. Countless people were being carried out, with head wounds, staggering on weakened legs.
Near one of the frontlines just north of Midan Tahrir blood covered parts of the street. I saw a man with no legs in a wheelchair wheeling himself away.
A group of men poured forward, screaming. A man had been accosted by another mob, who surrounded him and began beating him as he crumpled to the ground. I saw a woman sitting on a curb, holding an infant child, bundled in a small blanket.
A doctor at a mosque that had temporarily been turned into a hospital beside Midan Tahrir told me that they had treated 1,500 people in the tiny makeshift clinic. One woman had died after being struck in the head by a rock, causing a massive haemorrhage. The doctor said that they had run out of medical supplies and could no longer cope with the amount of persons streaming in.
Down another side street, men chanted pro-Mubarak slogans. Gunshots rang out regularly near Mohammad Nageeb station. Banners waved in the sky.
One of them showed a young looking Hosni Mubarak. A smile spread across his face.
Glen Johnson is a New Zealand journalist.