Protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square ran pro-Mubarak counter-protesters out of the area in the early morning hours of Thursday, eyewitnesses reported.
It was a surprising show of force by pro-reform demonstrators who spent the day under siege from pro-Mubarak crowds who physically assaulted protesters and, according to many reporters, deliberately targeted the media in an attempt to stop news reports out of Egypt.
After a day of chaos in Cairo’s streets that saw three protesters killed and hundreds injured, pro-Mubarak protesters who had seized control of a bridge and used it to launch Molotov cocktails found themselves chased away from the area, prompting NBC’s Richard Engel to declare that the anti-Mubarak protesters had “won” the standoff.
Shortly after the pro-Mubarak crowd fled, tanks were seen moving into the area and firing into the air. (Follow the latest developments at the al-Jazeera blog.)
An al-Jazeera producer on location in Tahrir Square described the scene:
The pro-Mubarak crowd suddenly retreated, and the pro-democracy protesters advanced a moveable wall of metal shields to a new front line much further up.
A side battle erupted down a street behind the pro-Mubarak lines, with rock throwing and molotov cocktails.
An armored personnel carrier opened fire into the air, shooting red tracers up over Cairo, in an apparent effort to disperse/frighten the pro-Mubarak crowd, who contracted again.
The pro-democracy protesters are now advancing their line of staggered metal shields farther and farther and seem to have gained decisive momentum.
NBC’s Engel also reported that pro-Mubarak protesters were “hunting down reporters,” a claim repeated by numerous foreign correspondents reporting from Cairo.
“The Egyptian government is employing a strategy of eliminating witnesses to their actions,” Mohamed Abdel Dayem of the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement. “The government has resorted to blanket censorship, intimidation, and today a series of deliberate attacks on journalists carried out by pro-government mobs.”
Among the many incidents Wednesday, CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper and his crew came under attack from pro-Mubarak forces; a car carrying ABC’s Christiane Amanpour came under siege from protesters chanting anti-American slogans; and a Canadian cameraman was severely beaten.
Those mobs, according to some reports, were hired thugs ordered to attack protesters, or possible plainclothes police officers, a claim made by numerous reporters over the course of the day.
“Pro-Mubarak mobs arrived in buses, armed with machetes, straight-razors and clubs, very menacing,” tweeted Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times.
“It is absurd to think of this as simply ‘clashes’ between two rival groups,” Kristof wrote. “The pro-democracy protesters are unarmed and have been peaceful at every step. But the pro-Mubarak thugs are arriving in buses and are armed — and they’re using their weapons.”
In Washington, the Obama administration’s slow shift away from support of Mubarak continued, with a debate breaking out over the $1.5 billion in annual aid the US sends to the Egyptian government.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs made it clear the Obama administration wasn’t dead set on continuing the aid, which is granted in exchange for Egypt’s recognition of an Israeli state.
“The money isn’t guaranteed, and is constantly under review,” Gibbs said, as quoted at al-Jazeera.
President Obama on Tuesday said the transition to a new government in Egypt “must begin now.”
Gibbs on Wednesday held that line. “Now means yesterday,” he said.