In Egypt earlier today, pro-Mubarak crowds clashed with the protesters who have been peacefully calling for the president to step down in Tahrir Square in central Cairo. Several hundred have been injured and at least one person was reportedly killed.
Now it is evening in Egypt and the live footage shows a calmer scene than images from the afternoon, but no one ones what comes next. The pro-democracy protesters, according to reporters on the ground with Al Jazeera, have not been deterred and are still determined to occupy the Tahrir Square until Mubarak leaves office, not in September but immediately.
Even in the mainstream media, there were immediately questions about the authenticity of these pro-government demonstrators.
In an uncharacteristically blunt article, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who is on the scene, writes:
Today President Mubarak seems to have decided to crack down on the democracy movement, using not police or army troops but rather mobs of hoodlums and thugs. I’ve been spending hours on Tahrir today, and it is absurd to think of this as simply “clashes” between two rival groups. 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 my area of Tahrir, the thugs were armed with machetes, straight razors, clubs and stones. And they all had the same chants, the same slogans and the same hostility to journalists. They clearly had been organized and briefed. So the idea that this is some spontaneous outpouring of pro-Mubarak supporters, both in Cairo and in Alexandria, who happen to end up clashing with other side — that is preposterous.
In a piece on the pro-Mubarak demonstrators, CNN’s staff in Cairo wrote today:
As battles raged between the two sides, some pro-Mubarak protesters were captured by his opponents. Some were terrified to be caught and begged for their lives, screaming that the government had paid them to come out and protest.
Others turned out to be carrying what seemed to be police identification, though they were dressed in plain clothes.
Many pro-democracy protesters and their supporters are making similar claims. For example, Alaa Mohamed tweeted:
…one of the thugs in #Tahrir Arrested now and it become clear he is one of the cops his name:Yassin Ali Mohamed Ali, ID No:89015191
The National columnist Sultan Al Qassemi says:
Al Arabiya reporter: The captured individuals who came on camels & horses have Interior Ministry ID cards. Al Jazeera reports the same.
Nadya Shanab tweeted:
…mother just called and said theyre paying ppl 50Le to walk in streets supporting mubarak and paying ppl from saqqara 200le to attack with their camels and horses – theyve told gov employees if they dont announce support to mubarak their job contracts wont be renewed.
It appears, that Mubarak is desperately trying to find a way to instigate violence. First he used the police; next the government seemed to have encouraged looting and vandalism; and now he appears to have organized counter-demonstrations. Nicholas Kristof has called them “provocateurs,” which seems accurate. More on what options Egyptian protesters have in dealing nonviolently with this threat in the next post.