Hundreds of pro-government supporters attacked protesters in Cairo's central square on Wednesday, where thousands were pushing ahead with demonstrations demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak despite the Egyptian army's public appeal to restore "normal life."
Mubarak supporters were out in the streets for the first time Wednesday in large numbers, with thousands demanding an end to the anti-government movement a day after the president went on national television and rejected demands for him to step down.
The president did say, however, that he had no plans to seek re-election.
Those calling for Mubarak to go have been out in Cairo and many other cities for more than a week, and they drew by far their largest crowd on Tuesday when at least a quarter million packed the central Tahrir Square and the downtown area around it. Hundreds of thousands more have turned out in other cities across this nation of 80 million.
By early afternoon, Mubarak supporters were breaking through a human chain of anti-government protesters trying to defend thousands gathered in Tahrir Square.
They tore down banners denouncing the president and fistfights broke out as they advanced across the massive square in the heart of the capital. At least 10 of those involved were injured and some were bleeding from their heads.
The anti-government protesters grabbed Mubarak posters from the hands of the supporters and ripped them.
A Reuters witness said those involved in the clashes were using stones and sticks, but not weapons. The witness also said that Mubarak supporters charged on horses and
camels towards Tahrir Square.
"These are the thugs of the (ruling) National Democratic Party. I was at the entrance of Tahrir making a human wall and a and then a group ... scuffled with us and then a rock hit me," said Waleed who was bleeding from his head. "I want Mubarak out."
The confrontations began just hours after a military spokesman went on national television and asked the protesters to disperse so life in Egypt could go back to normal. During the clashes, soldiers and tanks that have been guarding the square did not appear to intervene.
"The army forces are calling on you ... You began by going out to express your demands and you are the ones capable of restoring normal life," a military spokesman said in a televised statement, adding that the message and demands of the people had been heard.
The army has previously issued statements saying it would not use violence against opposition protesters and saying it understood the "legitimate demands" of the people.
Egyptian authorities announced that curfew times would be shortened starting from Wednesday, to run 5 P.M. to 7 A.M. instead 3 P.M. to 8 A.M. Internet service also began returning to Egypt after days of an unprecedented cut-off by the government.
Although SMS messaging was still patchy, mass circulation messages were landing. One which arrived on Wednesday said:
"The armed forces are concerned with your security and well-being and will not resort to the use of force against these great people." It was reiterating the army stance announced on Monday that they would not use violence against protesters.
The core of opposition protesters will have to convince the broader public to keep up the momentum in pushing for Mubarak to go in a country where many Egyptians have been shocked by the convulsions on their normally quiet street.
At least 1,500 people - including members of the opposition parties - were in the central square, which has become a focal point for the protests and drew hundreds of thousands on Tuesday. Many had camped in tents and under blankets, determined to stay until Mubarak goes.
Banners measuring some 20 meters long read: "The people demand the fall of the regime."
Many shops remained closed in downtown on Wednesday, but some customers said on Tuesday that several ATMs they tried were working and giving out cash as normal.
Many Egyptians live hand to mouth and have felt the strain as protests demanding Mubarak step down have spread across the country, disrupting services ranging from food supplies to cash machines.
An Egyptian opposition coalition called on Wednesday for more protests and said it would only enter into a dialogue with Vice President Omar Suleiman if Mubarak stepped down.
But some ordinary Egyptians, tired of the disruption, appeared ready to accept Mubarak's concessions.
A senior official indicated that the government also felt the protest had lost the momentum.
"I think it's over. We have demonstrations all over the country to support Mubarak. The minute [Mubarak] finished his speech we had 3,000 people under the [state broadcast] building. I think the mood is turning," he told Reuters.
"We have waited on him for 30 years, can't we give him eight more months?" asked Mohamed Ahmed, a lawyer, in downtown Cairo.
"The president has tackled most of the youth demands and he had done a lot to the country and served it for so long. He is a hero of war and peace he deserves to leave with dignity," said another lawyer, Kamal Mohamed Mansour.
As the opposition protests picked up speed, dozens of Egyptians supportive of the president gathered just outside the army perimeter surrounding Tahrir on Wednesday, chanting "Our soul and blood we sacrifice for you Mubarak" and "No to destruction, give a chance to Mubarak". One sign read: "Yes, Yes, Mubarak".
In Suez, some 300 to 400 pro-Mubarak supporters carried Egyptian flags and banners saying "Yes to Mubarak", "Mubarak, you are in our hearts".
The organizing committee which controls access to Tahrir Square was taking precautions for fear that pro-Mubarak groups might try to cause trouble there, organizers said.
At the checkpoint on the western side near Kasr el-Nil Bridge, members of the committee prevented about 10 pro-Mubarak protesters from entering the square.
Similarly, on Talaat Harb Street to the northeast, the organizers made a human chain across the road. One of them said they had identified a group of state security people who had tried to enter Tahrir Square.
State television coverage of the demonstrations has flip-flopped from almost totally ignoring them in the first days to extensive coverage since Friday's mass "Day of Wrath".
Immediately after Mubarak spoke late on Tuesday, state television showed images of pro-Mubarak protesters in the square.
"The demonstrations I saw yesterday looked like they were orchestrated," said Mayan Fawaz, a 30-year-old PR professional, who saw nearly 2,000 pro-Mubarak demonstrations near the area of Cairo where she lives on Wednesday.
"If these people were really pro-Mubarak where on earth have they been the past week? People on the streets were saying these demonstrators were hired by the NDP [ruling party]," she said.
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