By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Clashes have broken out in and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square between antigovernment demonstrators and supporters of President Hosni Mubarak — with the two sides battling with rocks, sticks, and regime supporters charging on horseback.
The violence erupted after midday prayers today when thousands of Mubarak supporters converged on the square, confronting antigovernment demonstrators who are now in their ninth day of protests calling for Mubarak’s resignation.
State television quoted a Health Ministry spokesman as saying 350 people had been injured.
Antigovernment demonstrators accuse Mubarak’s regime of sending in gangs of thugs to disrupt protests. They accuse Interior Ministry police of orchestrating the violence. As evidence, they were showing police identification papers they seized from members of the pro-Mubarak crowd during the melee.
Egypt’s Interior Ministry has denied that any plainclothes police were involved.
The running battles broke out suddenly on Tahrir Square when a large group of Mubarak’s supporters started throwing stones and charging at the antigovernment demonstrators — trying to push them further into the square.
Television broadcasts showed scenes of mayhem, with women and children trying to flee as violence erupted on the square, only to find themselves caught up in clashes on nearby side streets.
Dozens of Mubarak’s supporters could be seen charging into Tahrir Square at full speed on horses and a camel, snapping whips and breaking through a line of antigovernment demonstrators who had linked their arms together in a failed attempt to hold back the charge.
But after falling back into the chaos, the antigovernment demonstrators could be seen regrouping and isolating many of the horsemen — knocking them off of the animals and beating the riders with sticks.
Meanwhile, correspondents from within the ranks of the pro-Mubarak crowd reported seeing uniformed police officers driving a truck with loudspeakers that was supporting the pro-Mubarak march.
Initially, there was no sign of army troops or riot police on Tahrir Square trying to keep the two groups apart.
After about 45 minutes of clashes, army tanks were deployed on main streets in the city center trying to keep the opposing crowds apart. After several hours, they were still unable to quell the anger and violence.
International condemnation of the violence was quick to pour in. In a statement that suggested support for the peaceful antigovernment protesters, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in London today that “any attack against peaceful demonstrators is unacceptable.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron said it was unacceptable if Mubarak’s regime is sponsoring or tolerating the violence in any way.
Earlier today, Egyptian military spokesman Ismail Etman called for the antigovernment protesters to stay home because of fears of violent clashes with Mubarak supporters.
“Your message has been received and your demands are known. We are working hard to ensure the safety of the nation for you, the Egyptian people,” Etman said. “We must respond to our country’s call with hard and fruitful work.”
Egyptian state television had issued warnings of possible violence on the streets.
In Alexandria, Mubarak supporters clashed with antigovernment demonstrators who were trying to camp outside overnight — causing army troops in the port city to fire warning shots in the air.
Egypt’s demonstrators received a boost of confidence today from news that similar antigovernment protests in other parts of the Arab world appear to be having some impact.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh told parliament in Sanaa today he would not seek another term in office and that his son would not run in upcoming elections. Saleh also promised changes to Yemen’s constitution that now allow him to effectively remain president for life.
Yemen’s ‘Day Of Rage’
Demonstrators in Yemen have called for mass protests on February 3 as a “day of rage” against the 64-year-old president, who has held power since 1978.
In Jordan on February 1, King Abdullah sacked the government and appointed his former national security chief Marouf Bakhit to be the new prime minister. King Abdullah ordered Bakhit to form a new cabinet and carry out what he called “true political reform.”
Mubarak Promises Not To Run
Antigovernment protest organizers had hoped to repeat the size of mass demonstrations on February 1, when up to a million people demonstrated in Cairo and hundreds of thousands took to the streets of other Egyptian cities.
The mass protest led Mubarak to make concessions in a speech broadcast by state television just before midnight, when the embattled 82-year-old president promised he would not run for another term in elections scheduled for September.
“My primary responsibility now is to return security and stability to the country to produce a peaceful transition of power in an atmosphere that protects Egypt and Egyptians, leaving authority to whomever is chosen by the people in the next presidential elections,” Mubarak said.
“I say in all honesty, regardless of present events, [that] I do not intend to run for another presidential term. I have spent more than enough of my life in service of Egypt and its people, but now I am very committed to ending my term for the sake of the nation.”
The crowd responded to Mubarak’s speech by chanting “leave, leave.” Opposition leaders immediately rejected the concession as too little, too late.
Reformist leader and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who returned to Cairo last week and has emerged as a unifying opposition figure, called Mubarak’s speech “a trick.” He said, “As always, [Mubarak] is not listening to his people.”
Brotherhood Not Satisfied
Meanwhile, Egypt’s largest opposition group, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, said Mubarak’s offer to serve out the rest of his term did not satisfy the demands of the Egyptian people.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who spoke with the Egyptian president by telephone after the speech, said Mubarak “recognizes the status quo is not sustainable and that a change” must take place.
In what is seen as the effective withdrawal of U.S. support from its staunchest ally in the Arab world, Obama said he told Mubarak that change must begin immediately.
“What is clear and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak, is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now,” Obama said.
But the prospects for a peaceful resolution to Egypt’s political crisis appear to be dissipating after the chaos of the pitched battles that erupted in Cairo today.