Antigovernment protesters threw stones during clashes with supporters
of President Hosni Mubarak on Thursday in Tahrir Square in Cairo
Photo By Khalil Hamra
By David D. Kirkpatrick and Alan Cowell
The New York Times
CAIRO — The Egyptian government broadened its crackdown on Thursday to the international media and human rights workers, in an apparent effort to remove witnesses to the battle with anti-government protesters.
Armed supporters of President Hosni Mubarak attacked foreign journalists, punching them and smashing their equipment. Men who protesters said were plainclothes police officers shut down news media outlets that had been operating in buildings overlooking Tahrir Square.
An informal center set up by human rights workers in the square was seized, and a group of journalists was stopped in their car near the square by a gang of men with knives and briefly turned over to the military police, ostensibly for their protection. Two reporters working for The New York Times were released on Thursday after being detained overnight in Cairo.
The concerted effort to remove journalists lent a sense of foreboding to events in the square, where battles continued between the protesters and the Mubarak supporters, who human rights workers and protesters say are being paid and organized by the government. People bringing food, water and medicine to the protesters in the square were being stopped by Mubarak supporters, who confiscated what they had and threw some of it into the Nile.
In the afternoon, the fighting spread beyond the square to the October 6th Bridge, which rises above the Egyptian Museum. Shots were heard, and a surgeon assisting the anti-government protesters said three people were killed. “It was the police or the army, we don’t know,” said the surgeon, Mohamed Ezz. “Only they have guns.”
That followed a night of gunfire and a day of mayhem Wednesday that left at least five dead and more than 800 wounded in a battle for the Middle East’s most populous nation. With the violence rising, the United Nations ordered the evacuation of much of its staff on Thursday, while more than 4,000 passengers made their escape through Cairo airport, The Associated Press reported.
Sounding a highly unusual note of public contrition among Egypt’s elite, the newly appointed prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, apologized on Thursday for the violence and vowed to investigate who had instigated it “I offer my apology for everything that happened yesterday because it’s neither logical nor rational,” he said.
A government spokesman, Magdy Rady, denied that the authorities had been involved in the violence. “To accuse the government of mobilizing this is a real fiction. That would defeat our object of restoring the calm,” Mr. Rady told Reuters. “We were surprised with all these actions.”
Officials in Mr. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party were at pains Thursday to absolve the president of any role in the violent crackdown Wednesday on anti-government protesters. Speaking with one voice they blamed the violence on thugs hired by a group of rich businessmen eager to support the government.
But opposition leaders dismissed that explanation as a smoke screen, saying it was highly unlikely that anyone would take such a fateful action without the approval of the president himself.
In another conciliatory gesture by the government, Egypt’s public prosecutor issued a travel ban on former government ministers and an official of the National Democratic Party on suspicion of theft of public money, profiteering and fraud, state television reported. Among the four was the hated former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, who commanded a secret police force that was widely despised for its corruption and routine use of torture.
The outcome of the widening unrest is pivotal in a region where uprising and unrest have spread from Tunisia to many other lands, including Jordan and Yemen, forcing their leaders into precipitate concessions to their suddenly vocal foes and stretching American diplomacy.
In Sana, the Yemeni capital, on Thursday, thousands of protesters assembled, some for and some against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The demonstrations were peaceful, in marked contrast to the chaos that ruled in Cairo on Wednesday when Mr. Mubarak struck back at his opponents, unleashing waves of supporters armed with clubs, rocks, knives and firebombs in a concerted assault on thousands of antigovernment protesters in Tahrir Square. Calls for new protests in a number of Middle East countries were circulating on Twitter, including: Algeria, Feb. 12; Bahrain, Feb. 14; and Libya, Feb. 17.
In the clashes on Wednesday, the Egyptian military did nothing to intervene. But on Thursday for the first time, a thin line of soldiers backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers appeared to have taken up positions between the combatants and to be urging Mr. Mubarak’s supporters, numbering in the hundreds, to avoid confrontation.
For their part, several thousand antigovernment protesters, far fewer than in previous days, called for peaceful protest. “An Egyptian will not attack another,” some chanted from behind makeshift barricades thrown up to seal access to the square. “No bloodshed.”
When one man shouted an insult at a Mubarak supporter around 100 yards away, another, Mahmoud Haqiqi, told him: “Don’t say that. Stay quiet. Tell them we are here for their sake.”
After hours of bloody clashes starting on Wednesday with rocks, iron bars and petrol bombs into the night, the confrontation seemed to escalate early Thursday morning when the staccato rattle of automatic gunfire rang out over Cairo.
It was unclear whether the shots came from the pro-government demonstrators or from the military forces stationed in the square.
Two people were killed by the gunfire and 45 people were wounded, said a doctor at a nearby emergency clinic set up by the antigovernment demonstrators. After the initial volleys, soldiers fired into the air, temporarily scattering most of the people in the square.
More than 150 people have died in the uprising, human rights groups say.
By midmorning on Thursday, as the protesters’ numbers again began to swell, the antigovernment side held its ground in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square — the focus of the clashes — milling around and chanting slogans on the 10th day of the campaign to oust Mr. Mubarak.
Volunteers arrived carrying water, yogurt, bananas and medical supplies for the makeshift clinics that sprung up to tend the wounded. In the absence of any municipal services or authority, others tried to sweep the square of debris, using brooms, shovels and sheets of cardboard.
The violence on Wednesday and Thursday seemed to have hardened the protesters’ demands, going far beyond the ouster of Mr. Mubarak. “The people want the execution of the president,” some chanted. “Mubarak is a war criminal.”
Some low-level clashes continued, but nothing on the scale of the volleys of rocks and Molotov cocktails of the earlier fighting.
Early Thursday, the square was littered with rocks and makeshift barricades, with smoke drifting overhead. Troops guarded the Egyptian Museum, Cairo’s great storehouse of priceless antiquities dating to the time of the Pharaohs and a huge emblem of national pride.
As the fear of further clashes gripped Cairo, foreigners, including many Americans, continued their exodus.
In a statement, the American Embassy, which has ordered the compulsory evacuation of some diplomats and their families, said that more than 1,900 American citizens had been flown out of Egypt since Monday and more would leave on Thursday.
There was no indication that the antigovernment side was in a mood for retreat. On Thursday, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood — the biggest organized opposition group — again rejected a government offer to negotiate once the protesters had left Tahrir Square.
Essam el-Erian, a senior leader of the Islamist organization, told Reuters the movement was calling for the removal of “the regime, not the state.”
“This regime’s legitimacy is finished, with its president, with his deputy, its ministers, its party, its Parliament. We said this clearly. We refuse to negotiate with it because it has lost its legitimacy,” he said.
Only two days after the military pledged not to fire on protesters, it was unclear where the army stood. Many protesters contended that Mr. Mubarak was provoking a confrontation in order to prompt a military crackdown.
Mohamed ElBaradei, who was designated to negotiate with the government on behalf of the opposition, demanded on Wednesday that the army move in and protect the protesters. The deployment of plainclothes forces paid by Mr. Mubarak’s ruling party — men known here as baltageya — has been a hallmark of the Mubarak government, and there were many signs that the violence was carefully choreographed.
The preparations for a confrontation began Wednesday morning, a day after Mr. Mubarak pledged to step down in September while insisting that he would die on Egyptian soil. The president’s supporters waved flags as though they were headed to a protest, but armed themselves as though they were itching for a fight. Several wore hard hats; one had a meat cleaver, and two others grabbed the raw materials to make firebombs from their car.
Some of the Mubarak supporters arrived in buses. When they spoke with one another, they referred to the antigovernment protesters as foreigners or traitors, and to Mr. Mubarak as Egypt’s “father.”
The anti-Mubarak demonstrators had organized themselves to try to avoid violence. Men held hands in long chains to keep the two groups apart. Others, with effusive apologies, searched those entering the square for weapons. Some stepped in with whistles to break up arguments that had started to grow heated.
Several people interviewed independently said that ruling party operatives had offered them 50 Egyptian pounds, less than $10, if they agreed to demonstrate in the square on Mr. Mubarak’s behalf. “Fifty pounds for my country!” said Yasmina Salah, 29.
David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo, and Alan Cowell from Paris. Reporting was contributed by Kareem Fahim, Liam Stack, Mona El-Naggar and Anthony Shadid from Cairo, Michael Slackman from Berlin, and J. David Goodman from New York.
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