The Egyptian protests have dissolved into an ugly street battle, after the military – until now sympathetic to the protesters – decided that President Hosni Mubarak’s decision to step down next September was good enough for them.
Although the military has said that violence against the protesters would not be permitted, they stood idle while hordes of previously invisible “Mubarak supporters” appeared and began attacking demonstrators. Some of the pro-Mubarak forces were mounted on camels and horses, while others were seen carrying machetes. Volleys of rocks and firebombs have been exchanged. A Molotov cocktail hit the great Egyptian Museum, which is now on fire. There have been conflicting reports of gunshots, which may have come from military units firing into the air in a half-hearted bid to restore order.
CNN relayed an Egyptian state television report that said the camel riders “were pyramid workers who were protesting the negative economic impact of the crisis.” Apparently Nile TV has also “sought to portray the unrest as a “foreign conspiracy” fueled by international journalists.”
Fox News reports gunfire has been heard in the streets, and tear gas has been flung from rooftops surrounding Tahrir Square. Journalists, including Associated Press reporters and CNN’s Anderson Cooper, have been attacked by Mubarak’s forces. Some reports suggest the pro-Mubarak muscle was given specific instructions to target foreign journalists. Perhaps they were just avid watchers of Nile TV news.
Opposition activists claim the violence was initiated by plainclothes Egyptian police mixed in with the protesters. The Associated Press says the melee began when three thousand pro-Mubarak supporters left their own rally and broke through a human chain into Tahrir Square, where “They tore down banners denouncing the president, fistfights broke out as protesters grabbed Mubarak posters from the hands of the supporters and ripped them to pieces.”
CNN’s wire staff says there was a brief truce after “some brave Egyptians tried to stop the violence,” but “All at once, about 50 or 60 people carrying clubs and riding horses and camels charged into the square, beating some protesters,” after which “the frenzy intensified.”
Over 400 people are said to have been injured, and a member of the Egyptian security forces was reportedly killed. International observers swiftly condemned the violence. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs declared the United States “deplores and condemns the violence that is taking place in Egypt,” and is “deeply concerned about attacks on the media and peaceful demonstrators.” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said “any attack against the peaceful demonstrators is unacceptable and I strongly condemn it.” Meeting with the Secretary-General, British Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the violence in Cairo as “despicable.”
Night has fallen over Cairo, and both sides seem to be digging in. Protesters have been seen carrying food and supplies for a long stay in Tahrir Square, while the Egyptian Foreign Ministry released a statement declaring that “what foreign parties are saying about a ‘period of transition beginning immediately in Egypt’ is rejected,” and describing such calls as an incitement to violence.
(Thanks to Cuffy Meigs for naming the “crackdown camels.”)