Cairo, Egypt — The Mubarak regime launched a brutal and coordinated campaign of violence today to take back the streets of Cairo from Egypt’s mass pro-democracy movement.
Pro-Mubarak mobs began gathering near Tahrir square shortly after Mubarak’s speech on Tuesday night and held a rally in front of the state TV building on Corniche El Nile St. In the morning, they began marching around the downtown area in packs of 50 to 100.
These were not the same kinds of protesters that have occupied Tahrir for the last few days. These crowds were made up mostly of men, in between 20 and 45 years old. Many wore thick leather jackets with sweaters underneath. They chanted angrily in support of Mubarak and against the pro-democracy movement. They were hostile and intimidating.
They repeatedly cursed Al Jazeera, asking cameramen at the scene if they worked for the Arabic news network. One man drew his finger across his throat to signal his intentions.
By midday their numbers had swelled dramatically and they began pouring into the downtown area heading straight for Tahrir Square. The army, which had encircled Tahrir since Saturday, simply let them in. The pro-democracy protesters inside formed a human chain inside to try and hold the mob at bay. Utilizing their greater numbers, they initially succeeded in pushing them back non-violently and appeared to have them in full retreat. But then, the mob attacked.
"Suddenly, rocks started falling out of the sky," said Ismail Naguib, a witness at the scene. "Rocks were flying everywhere. Everywhere." Many people were hit. Some were badly cut, others had arms and legs broken. The mob then charged in, some riding on horseback and camels trampling and beating people. Groups of them gathered on rooftops around Tahrir and continued to pelt people with rocks.
"It’s a massacre," said Selma al-Tarzi as the attack was ongoing. "They have knives, they are throwing molotov bombs, they are burning the trees, they are throwing stones at us...this is not a demonstration anymore this is war."
Some of the attackers were caught. Their IDs showed them to be policemen dressed in civilians clothes. Others appeared to be state sponsored 'baltagiya' and government employees. "Instead of uniformed guys trying to stop you from protesting. You’ve got non-uniformed guys trying to stop you from protesting," Naguib said.
Meanwhile, pro-Mubarak crowds blocked all the entrances to Tahrir. They chanted angrily and pushed people back trying to get in. The army was complicit in the siege, preventing anyone, including journalists from entering. The attack inside continued for several hours. At least 600 were injured and one killed.
Egypt’s popular uprising had come under a heavy and brutal assault nine days after it began. This was the true face of the U.S.-backed Mubarak regime that had repressed the Egyptian people for so many years. But this time, the whole world was watching.
While many pro-democracy demonstrators left Tahrir for the safety of their homes, a significant number remain inside, vowing not to leave until Mubarak does. It remains to be seen how the protesters will respond but Friday will undoubtedly be a decisive day.
Sharif Abdel Kouddous is a senior producer for the radio/TV show Democracy Now.
Follow him on Twitter at @sharifkouddous.