Backers of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, throwing petrol bombs, wielding sticks and charging on horses and camels, assaulted demonstrators in Cairo on Wednesday after the army told the protesters to go home.
Anti-Mubarak protesters hurled stones back and said the attackers were police in plainclothes. The Interior Ministry denied the accusation, and the Egyptian government rejected international calls for Mubarak to end his 30-year rule now.
This apparent rebuff along with the appearance of Mubarak supporters on Cairo’s streets and their clashes with protesters — after days of relatively calm demonstrations — complicated U.S. calculations for an orderly transition of power.
In pointed comments, a senior U.S. official said it was clear that “somebody loyal to Mubarak has unleashed these guys to try to intimidate the protesters.”
The emergence of Mubarak loyalists, whether ordinary citizens or police, injected a new dynamic into the momentous events in this most populous Arab nation of 80 million people.
The uprising broke out last week as public frustration with corruption, oppression and economic hardship under Mubarak boiled over. At least 140 people are estimated to have been killed so far and there have been protests across the country.
As night fell, Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman urged the 2,000 demonstrators bedding down in Cairo’s central Tahrir (Liberation) Square to leave and observe a curfew to restore calm. Suleiman said the start of dialogue with the opposition depended on an end to street protests.