CAIRO, Egypt -- The Egyptian protest started getting violent early this afternoon, a few minutes after a cheerful girl, about 14 years old, handed me a caramel. Since I arrived yesterday afternoon, and up until the caramel reached my hand, Tahrir Square was a calm place lacking any menace whatsoever. Children were having their faces painted. Men and women were happily sweeping up trash, helping each other pitch tents, and waiting patiently for their turn at the water tap. It reminded me of Burning Man, except that in the place of stations for full-body nude massages or refills of psychedelics, it had little protest areas where one could find Muslim Brothers, students, and every other flavor of disaffected Egyptian.
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I was sitting across from the Mogamma, the imposing futurist fortress on the edge of the square, when I heard that a pro-Mubarak crowd that started in Muhandiseen, about a mile away, had started to stream into the square from the direction of the Egyptian Museum. A few of them had already reached the KFC at the center of the square when I saw the first of more than a hundred injured men being carried back to safety, which for the protesters meant the center of the square. Then the stones started flying, and the blood gushing in full force. Each side was systematically unpaving downtown Cairo, and in moments when they were not throwing stones they were breaking them against the curb into smaller stones that they could throw further. Men and women were screaming and crying, and I lifted my notebook to my head to avoid getting brained by a stray rock.
The protesters pushed back the pro-Mubarak crowd. Some of their charges (it really looked like a Civil War battle charge designed to overrun an enemy position) were so intense that I feared for the pro-government crowd's safety. That worry rapidly vanished. The pro-Mubarak group turned out to have great strategic depth, reaching all the way back to the Nile and beyond, and with sheer numbers it pushed forward, gradually rushing past the protesters and me. The Mubarak forces screamed "Yes Mubarak," and the protesters alternated between "Leave!" and "God is Great!" -- with the latter noticeably favored during moments when the protesters had the initiative. The injured were carried back, most with bloody head wounds. Seven middle-aged men stood in prayer next to a tank during the height of the stone-volleys, remarkably placid-looking, like the string quartet fiddling as the Titanic went down.
Gradually, near the entrance to the Egyptian Museum, each side began to realize that neither faction would be overrun completely. Entrenchment began, and a no-man's-land of about a hundred yards opened up. I stood there in the middle, taking video, dodging rocks coming from the side I could see and holding my notebook to cover the side I couldn't. Then, right by the Egyptian Museum entrance, five men in plainclothes grabbed me, hit me three times, twice in the back and once in the chest, and brought me toward the Museum itself. They grabbed my video camera and still camera, shouting "memory card," and tried to break it when they couldn't figure out how to remove it. Then two of them grabbed my arms and ejected me from the square, onto the Nile corniche, which was so calm that the first person I met was a newspaper journalist who had to ask me whether we were among Mubarak supporters or protesters.
I don't know whether he stayed, but if he waited another half hour his uncertainty about the sentiments of the crowd around us would evaporate. The pro-Mubarak group flooded the square, and its strategy became clear: All the entrances to the plaza were being probed and, if found lightly defended, overrun. I was now on the outside among the forward surge; no one was permitted to leave, but a trickle of captured protesters came out, each surrounded by at least a hundred screaming Mubarak supporters, and being beaten so intensely that I couldn't see their faces, only a circle of waving sticks and fists, raining down on whatever unfortunate was at the center. One female protester was brought out, thrashed, and delivered to a military unit inside the Egyptian Museum grounds. At one point a man was being crowd-surfed out and beaten; one of the pro-Mubarak men said he was a "Chinese journalist." "We will stay," the man said, "and then go into the square and take it over."
I'm now north of the square. There is no help coming for the protesters, but all the way up the banks of the Nile there are angry, screaming pro-Mubarak supporters walking and sometimes running to reach the front of the crowd and throw a stone. Men and women are pulling up cobblestones, breaking them, and using Egyptian flags to create bindles full of rocks and resupply the pro-Mubarak group.
The last time I saw a massive protest in Tahrir Square was in 2003, during protests of the Iraq War. During those protests, the police encircled the protesters and let them scream for a couple days. Late at night, I stood among the police, asking them about their hometowns in Upper Egypt. Then, around midnight, they were called to attention, told to harden their lines, and finally to march toward the remaining protesters, letting none escape. Truncheons came down, and within a few minutes they had rounded everyone up into paddy wagons, and the square resumed its light evening traffic. I stood almost alone by the Mogamma, only because I was standing five feet outside the police ring rather than five feet inside it.
I assume the same will happen tonight, except instead of the police, the pro-Mubarak crowds will surge and then meet in the middle. I doubt the police or army would be willing, but the mobs certainly are -- and they will not have so light a touch with their weapons. Mubarak has the initiative, and he appears inclined to use it.
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Graeme Wood is a staff writer for The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.