Following many long hours of violent street fights between supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and anti-government demonstrators, relative calm returned to Cairo's center on Thursday evening.
Thousands of Mubarak supporters, who violently attacked anti-government protesters and foreign journalist in Cairo's Tahrir Square, started returning to their homes. Meanwhile, some ten thousand citizens remained in the square after dark to defend the site of the protests, which they say has become an "autonomous republic of the Egyptian people" over which Mubarak has no control.
In a second day of rock-throwing battles at Tahrir Square between protesters and regime supporters on Thursday, new looting and arson erupted, and gangs of thugs supporting Mubarak attacked reporters, foreigners and rights workers while the army rounded up foreign journalists.
The government increasingly spread an image that foreigners were fueling the turmoil and supporting the tens of thousands in the street who for more than 10 days have demanded the immediate ouster of Mubarak, this country’s unquestioned ruler for nearly three decades.
Pro-government mobs beat foreign journalists with sticks on the streets outside downtown Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests.
Lawlessness that had largely eased since the weekend flared anew. A fire raged in a major supermarket outside Sheikh Zayed, a suburb of the capital, and looters were ransacking the building. A residential building neighboring a 5-star hotel on the Nile River corniche was also ablaze, blocks away from Tahrir. Other fires erupted in the Cairo district of Shubra, north of the center, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Thursday’s fighting centered on and under a highway overpass about 500 yards (meters) north of the square’s center that pro-government attackers had used as a high ground to rain down stones and firebombs.
Anti-Mubarak protesters surged from the square in the afternoon in volleys of stones, bottles and metal rebar, chasing their foes around the fly-over.
At one point, a police truck barreled wildly through the crowds under the bridge, mowing down several people in its path, according to footage aired on Al-Jazeera. Heavy barrages of gunfire were heard from time to time, and at least one wounded person was carried away.
In the morning, the military took its first muscular action to halt the fighting after standing by without interfering since the fighting began. They moved after heavy barrages of automatic gunfire over the course of two hours before dawn killed five protesters in a serious escalation.
Four tanks cleared the highway overpass and several hundred soldiers on the streets below lined up between the two sides, pushing the pro-government fighters back and blocking the main battle lines in front of the famed Egyptian Museum and at other entrances to the square. For several hours after, more protesters streamed into the square to support those who had fought through the night.
But when clashes resumed in the afternoon, soldiers disappeared from the streets, moving inside their tanks and armored vehicles without intervening again. Every once in a while, protesters would wrestle a Mubarak supporter to the ground, search him for an ID, then raise the card in the air to prove he was a police officer or ruling party member.
The anti-Mubarak movement has vowed to intensify protests to force the president out by Friday. In a speech Tuesday night, Mubarak refused to step down immediately, saying he would serve out the remaining seven months of his term — a halfway concession rejected by the protesters.
A sense of victory ran through the protesters Thursday after they succeeded in keeping their hold on the square and pushing back their attackers.
“Thank God, we managed to protect the whole area,” said Abdul-Rahman, a taxi driver who was among thousands who stayed hunkered in the square through the night, hunkered down against the thousands besieging the entrances. “We prevented the pro-Mubarak people from storming the streets leading to the square.” He refused to give his full name.
Many dismissed the government concessions, which would have been stunning only a month ago, and said they wanted nothing less than Mubarak to go now.
“We have gone beyond these demands a long time ago,” said Waheed Hamad, a 40-year-old schoolteacher among the protesters. “What we need is something bigger. And the road is still long.” He said the attacks on protests would only make them grow. “Blood is the fuel of the revolution.”
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