Midan Tahrir under siege

Yesterday, at about 2pm, as I was leaving Midan Tahrir, we started seeing groups of what the media is calling, for lack of a better word, "pro-Mubarak supporters" arriving along Kasr El Aini Street. They were also coming from other directions, all converging on the square. In the morning I'd seen arguments breaking out in the square between some people who had come to defend Mubarak and the protesters--they were heated, but entirely peaceful.

The crowds that arrived in the afternoon, as I think everyone has seen on TV by now, were anything but--they attacked the protesters, charging them on horseback (!), throwing molotov cocktails at them and climbing to the tops of surrounding buildings to drop stones on them. The Wall Street Journal has a long, detailed account of the day's clashes. 

I've been working in Egypt for 7 years and I know that "pro-Mubarak supporters" are always trouble. Everytime there is an election or a demonstration, somewhere in the vicinity, alongside the police, you'll see rows of shabbily dressed young men, waiting to be given the order to rough people up -- what people here simply refer to as "beltagiya" (thugs"). They are made up of petty criminals; police informants; unemployed youth; people over which the regime has some leverage. In 2004 I spoke to a young man who told me his boss (an NDP businessman) had simply told all his employees to go out and demonstrate for Mubarak or they would be fired. We often hear reports of these guys being offered little incentives--small amounts of cash, a chicken lunch. 

Then there are the pro-Mubarak "demonstrations" being shown on a continuous loop on state TV (in close-up, so as not to reveal the size of the groups). These include women and middle-aged men who are more likely ministry employees, NDP party cadres and some security and interior officers. Al Masry Al Youm English reports that: "A source at the National Democratic Party (NDP) in Alexandria, who asked not to be identified, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that the party asked its provincial offices to organize pro-Mubarak protests in order to show the people the president is still popular."

The thing that always strikes me about this demos is their frenzied, staged quality--you can tell what a show people are putting on for the cameras (men hysterically kissing the president' picture, etc.) When interviewed, these "demonstrators" can barely articulate their point beyond a few emotional propaganda points. 

Yesterday's pro-Mubarak "demonstrations" clearly gathered all these forces together--as well as some people (and there are plenty) who are tired and afraid of the protests. The government has created a state of emergency (the army on the streets, the orchestrated looting, the shut-down of banks and gas stations) and blamed the protesters for it. Some people are buying this. 

The pro-Mubarak crowds yesterday all arrived at the same time, from different directions, many carrying identical sheets of paper that had the same "Yes to Mubarak" printed on them. Very quickly, as they assaulted the square, the essence of these groups emerged: they were a state-supported and directed mob. They have been given license and encouragement to attack their fellow citizens. 

The army did absolutely nothing to stop them. 

The government is also moving increasingly towards paranoia and incitement. The references to Israeli and American plots behind the protests are multiplying. There have been many reports of pro-government gangs attacking journalists. 

A friend who lives just off Mahmoud Basiouni street, near the Egpytian museum, says fighting there -- including shots and molotov cocktails -- lasted all night. The protesters actually pushed the government forces back--at one point they took the October Bridge -- and this morning they had control from Tahrir to Abdel-Moneim Riyad to Kasr El-Nil bridge. They have taken all the construction material from the construction site in front of the old Nile Hilton and built barricades and protective shields. 

But the government forces are massing again. They are also reportedly checking people's IDs as they enter the area and beating anyone who is a foreigner, of any nationality (this from someone who recently crossed the 6th of October Bridge). 

All the things happening now--the use of orchestrated, para-state violence; the depicting of dissidents and journalists as spys and traitors; terrifying the population so as to make it a choice between, as the president said, "chaos and stability"--are tools the regime has used many times before. But I've never seen it reach anywhere near this level before, because I don't think the regime has ever been this threatened before. Still, as so many others here, I am stunned at the damage--to the country's economy, its international profile, and most important of all, to its very social cohesion, its soul--Mubarak is willing to do to stay in power. We are either witnessing the ugly death throes of a regime, or the beginning of a long, terrible crackdown.