Thousands of supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak turned out in the streets of Cairo today, some riding horses and camels and carrying whips that they used to attack anti-government protesters.
Anti-government protesters say those supporting Mubarak are “thugs” hired by the president’s party, the National Democratic Party.
Here & Now’s Robin Young spoke with Hossam Bahgat, a human rights activist and one of the protesters in Tahrir Square. He described the scene today.
Hossam Bahgat: As you know, this protest has been largely peaceful, especially since Saturday. And today we’re in Tahrir Square and we’re being attacked from almost every side by, to me, it looks like government-hired thugs that are throwing stones at protesters and many of the protesters now at the main entrance of the square are throwing stones back at them.
I’ve seen countless men being carried away with serious head and feet injuries as a result of these stones.
Now interestingly, this happened almost minutes after an army spokesperson had read a statement inviting the anti-Mubarak protesters to go home. And that coincided with the army inexplicably removing the battle cage that it had erected around Tahrir Square and allowing these pro-government thugs to walk into the square and start attacking the protesters who have been here for over eight days.
Robin Young: What else are you seeing from the military?We are hearing that the military was trying to keep the two camps separated by setting up barricades of trucks.
Bahgat: I don’t see this at all, in fact I don’t even see any military personnel around their tanks, so the army tanks are still parked around the square but I don’t see any of the military officers that have been here for the past week. I don’t (know) whether they are inside their tanks to avoid the rock throwing, or if they have vacated the area.
And at a certain point we were even attacked by some pro-Mubarak people riding horses and camels and carrying sticks… And in fact, as I was coming in this morning from home, I was told by my taxi driver that in the morning he saw people who normally offer tourists in the pyramid area camel rides and horse rides, he saw them bringing their camels and horses and donkeys to Tahrir Square. So this is clearly a pre-planned and pre-designed operation.
Mubarak clearly is hanging onto power, and this is one of his last weapons he has at his disposal.
Young: We’d also heard that many of the tour guides were anti-Mubarak, but you’re saying that some of these pro-Mubarak people brought their camels in from the pyramids and other places.
We heard that earlier today groups of protesters, were singling out people and scuffling with them. Were protesters finding pro-Mubarak people in the crowds before these huge groups of pro-Mubarak people stated marching in? Because we saw protesters attacking people. Anderson Cooper from CNN was in the middle of that.
Bahgat: Yes, I saw that as well and obviously it’s hard to tell whether these people are indeed police undercover, police agents dressed in plain clothes. And there is a lot of anger, as you can imagine, in the square, and the level of outrage at this attack is unprecedented. Especially because these people have been with their wives and their kids for nine days now, and then suddenly they see people attacking them on top of horses. So of course there is a possibility that some people are being wrongly accused of being undercover police agents. There are many protestors that are around making sure that whenever an alleged undercover police agent is caught he is handed over to the army immediately or taken away in order to ensure their physical safety, but it’s definitely cause for concern.
I’m in Tahrir Sqaure now, I’m hearing some gunshots – I don’t know if these are just sounds, shots or live ammunition. You know, it’s just very difficult to understand what is happening right now, because all my life I’ve never seen a camel on the streets of Cairo except around the pyramids. And the fact that these were allowed to come to Tahrir Square is, again, another indication that these are not pro-Mubarak loyalists. No NDP supporter would ever keep a horse or camel at home in Cairo.
Young: Well when you say they’re not pro-Mubarak loyalists, what do you mean?
Bahgat: No. These are people that I recognize well, and my colleagues recognize well. These are the election-spying thugs that we see whenever there is an election hired or bribed by NDP candidates or there supporters in order to instigate violence against opposition or independence candidates and their supporters. It’s just very easy for any Egyptian who has lived here to recognize these are not pro-government loyalists, these clearly are the same hired thugs that attack us and attack the journalists, particularly during election time.
And, of course, I witnessed many attacks against journalists, especially the foreign ones, because clearly in these times they become the enemy, because that’s how these pro-government thugs are exposed to the rest of the world.
Young: Hasam, what do you think happens, now? Do you think the protesters, the Mubrarak protesters, will start leaving the square?
Bahgat: We’re being surrounded from almost every side of the square. Something needs to happen right now or there will be a bloodbath. I’m confident, despite the ugliness that I see all around me here, I am confident that this is Mubarak’s last act of despair.
No president can remain in power after doing this to his own people. So he just burned his last bridge with the Egyptian people, and I’m very grateful to the international media for reporting to the rest of the world what we’re seeing now in Tahrir Square.
Young: There’s also the chance that this could go the way of Tiananmen Square, that you and your fellow protestors could be brutally silenced, and that President Mubarak has an excuse for saying that he needs to be a strong man.
Bahgat: Yes. That is a possibility and people here are aware of this. I don’t think we have a choice. Going home now after nine days, accepting Mubarak after 30 years, but especially after these horrific acts of today is just not a choice. And so in part we are protected by you and the cameras that are around the square now, but we understand that these could be of limited effect. And we just say to Mubarak: Bring it on, we’re not leaving.
Young: How far do you think Egyptians are willing to go? This has been a peaceful protest – the biggest weapon, rocks – do you think it goes further than that? Does this become an armed protest?
Bahgat: It’s 5 p.m. now, in about an hour it’s going to get dark. As I walked around the square, I saw these pro-Mubarak thugs carrying sticks, but also carrying knives, sometimes even carrying swords. When nighttime comes it’s going to be 10 times more dangerous for us to be in the square, because they might use these knives against protestors in the dark.
But we’re also hearing rumors that people surrounding us in the square are getting ready with Molotov cocktails that they plan to use once they run out of rocks to throw at us. So, again, something needs to be done immediately if we are to avoid a bloodbath that seems increasingly likely.