Thousands of supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak besieged anti-government forces ensconced in Tahrir Square on Wednesday, leading to violent clashes and some injuries.
Pro-Mubarak forces tried to push their way into the square through numerous side streets and were met with, in some cases, cordons of peaceful protesters and, in others, by those throwing large chunks of stone or concrete.
At El Bustan street, just off Tahrir Square, the two sides surged back and forth for more than an hour, with at least a dozen of the pro-Mubarak Egyptians injured by the flying stones — two at this spot were carried away unconscious. One man staggered away with blood running down his face after apparently being hit by a rock. Other men brandished wooden clubs and glass bottles.
Ambulances tried in vain to get through the crowds to help the injured.
Al Jazeera showed scenes of men on horeseback and camels storming into the crowds in an apparent attempt to disperse anti-government protesters. At one point, the demonstrators attacked one of the men on a horse, pulling him down to the street and pummeling him.
Finally, army armored vehicles moved in to separate the two sides. By late afternoon, the army had blocked some of the major entrances to the square, pushing the two sides apart.
Wednesday morning, before the fighting, the Egyptian military had called for a halt to demonstrations and urged protesters to go home. The announcement on state television was a signal that the military had not abandoned Mubarak, who late Tuesday night announced he would not run for reelection in September or October but made a plea to hold onto power in the interim. Opposition leaders immediately rejected Mubarak’s announcement as a ploy to hold onto power.
“You are the ones capable of returning normal life to Egypt,” military spokesman Ismail Etman said on state television. “Your message has arrived, your demands have become known.”
“The armed forces call on the protesters to go home for the sake of bringing back stability,” came another statement on state television.
Many of the anti-Mubarak forces were unaware of the military’s request to disband — and said they would disregard it in any event.
“We’re not leaving. We’ll sit under the tanks if the army tries to stop us,” said Omar Adli, an anti-Mubarak demonstrator who was bearded and clad in a long robe-like galabeya. Then he broke off speaking to run toward a nearby knot of men who had begun shoving one another and throwing punches.
Mubarak supporters chanted, “In spirit and blood we want you, Mubarak,” they chanted, as a handful of soldiers proved powerless to hold them back.
“You are your president. You are our president,” they shouted.
The push into the square by pro-Mubarak forces appeared highly organized, concentrated on a few key access routes to the plaza. The anti-Mubarak protesters have accused the Egyptian leader’s allies of paying people to rally in his support — and to use force to intimidate anti-government demonstrators.
The political upheaval, ignited by a popular uprising that drove Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali from power Jan. 14, has shaken the Arab world and galvanized calls for change across the region, including in Jordan, Syria, Algeria, Sudan and Yemen.
Wednesday, the longtime leader of Yemen vowed to leave office before elections in 2013. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, under pressure from a boisterous coalition of relatively well-organized opposition groups, announced that neither he nor his son would stand for office and that he would pull back proposed constitutional changes that would make him ruler for life, according to news agencies.
“No to hereditary rule and no to life presidency,” Saleh told parliament, according to Agence France-Presse.
A day before making his announcement, the Yemeni leader’s government approved emergency financial handouts for 500,000 families and reduced tuition payments for students in an effort to placate those angry over the economy. A large anti-government rally is scheduled in the Yemeni capital tomorrow.
But in Egypt, the continued political crisis, fueled in part by economic grievances, has exacerbated day-to-day difficulties for many ordinary people. Businesses in the city center, together with banks across the country, remained closed for a fourth day Wednesday. The cash crunch is intensifying, especially because the shutdown coincided with the month’s end, and almost no one has been able to lay hands on a paycheck.
But in a sign of increased confidence, the government on Wednesday restored Internet service, which had been cut several days ago in an apparent effort to keep opposition demonstrators from coordinating.
Nations all over the world have dispatched charter flights to evacuate their nationals from the country, draining Egypt of much-needed foreign currency. Tourism, an economic pillar in the nation of pyramids, has all but died.
In a televised address late Tuesday, Mubarak said he would stand down from office within months while implementing reforms and paving the way for a transition, but he ruled out going into exile like Ben Ali. His statement followed calls by the Obama administration to begin an orderly transfer of power. The U.S. provides Egypt annually with $2 billion in foreign aid.
Washington’s move against Mubarak enraged some Israelis, who see Mubarak as a bulwark against Islamic radicalism. Egypt is one of only two Arab states that host Israeli embassies.
“I think the Americans still haven’t realized the catastrophe they have plunged the Middle East into,” Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a former Israeli defense minister, told Israeli army radio.
Borzou Daragahi in Beirut and special correspondent Alexandra Sandels in Cairo contributed to this report.