CAIRO, EGYPT -- After a day and a half of pitched battle to hold the teeming heart and symbol of Egypt’s uprising, Friday was a time for the pro-democracy demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square to consolidate their gains.
On Wednesday, a concerted and coordinated attack by supporters of president Hosni Mubarak – many of them reportedly security officers paid to do so – threatened to overrun the square, leading to 12 hours of medieval-style warfare complete with makeshift catapults, metal barricades and flaming projectiles.
Though the fighting subsided early on Thursday morning, protesters remained on high alert throughout the rest of the day and night, fearful that the government – which had earlier mounted an apparently systematic campaign to intimidate reporters off the street – would eventually move to finish them once and for all.
But the expected attack never came, and Friday dawned peacefully over Cairo. Mohamed Tantawy, the commander of Egypt’s military, visited with protesters in the morning, and a renewed army presence put the square and its immediate surroundings under tight security and blocked many Mubarak supporters from reaching the area.
The main, army-sanctioned route into the square was through an entrance off Kasr al-Nil bridge, which spans the Nile and connects central Cairo with the ritzy island of Zamalek to the west.
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A crowd of hundreds queued outside that entrance throughout Friday and streamed into the square, feeding a crowd of hundreds of thousands that rivaled those that have already gathered over the past 11 days of protests, which seek the ouster of Mubarak, president for 30 years, and a complete overhaul of Egypt's government.
Inside the square, a crowd that had thinned after the Wednesday-night clashes was now bolstered by women, children, and a large number of international journalists.
Supplies were coming in as well, and protesters set up new pharmacies and a rapid-response medical clinic – blocked off with metal barricades and marked with the Red Crescent – just 30 metres behind the war-torn northern front line near the Egyptian Museum.
Standing near the clinic was 14-year-old Mohammed, a bedraggled boy who told us that he had snuck away from his home near the well-off Heliopolis neighbourhood to come to the square.
Children have become caught up in Egypt's violent unrest, and Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Thursday that it was concerned about the protests putting them in "grave danger".
Mohammed told us that he had called his father, who asked him to come home, but that he had told his father that baltageya – "thugs" – surrounding the area made it too dangerous to return.
Declining food offered by a passing woman who was handing out supplies to the protesters, he told us that he hadn't been hurt and had come because he was angry with Mubarak, who he said had sent paid fighters to attack the square.
Beyond Mohammed lay three layers of barricades and five human checkpoints where teams of protesters wearing badges labeled "security" frisked entrants and checked their identification cards.
One barricade on Mahmoud Basyouni street, a major thoroughfare leading from the museum barricade's eastern flank to the formerly busy Talaat Harb square, enjoyed the advantage of a coil of army razorwire left behind and stretched across its front.
At the edge of the protesters defences, in Talaat Harb square itself, a stand-off between hundreds of Mubarak supporters who had managed to reach the area erupted into a rock-throwing battle between the two sides on Friday morning. From the barricade on Mahmoud Basyouni street, scores of rocks could be seeing flying back and forth through the square.
After 10 minutes of fighting, the pro-democracy protesters finally stormed out from behind their barricades and drove the Mubarak supporters into the arterial streets feeding into the square from the north and east. A popular protest chant - "The people want the downfall of the system!" – echoed off the surrounding buildings.
The two sides stared each other down from a distance after the fighting and even came face-to-face on Talaat Harb street to the north. Despite pressing up against one another, neither the Mubarak supporters nor the pro-democracy protesters fought.
Instead, they exchanged chants and waved banners; the Mubarak crowd raised portraits of the president. Protesters standing toward the back of the anti-government crowd stood with rocks in their hands, waiting.
In a nearby stairwell, a pro-democracy protester asked another onlooker loudly if he was with one side or the other. The man being questioned looked uneasy and warily responded that both were Egyptians. The protester raised his voice, yelling that the man couldn't simply stand by without choosing.
The man looked away, asking – without expecting an answer – what would happen when this was all finished. He unenthusiastically joined in the anti-government chanting.
Around 30 metres to the rear of the Talaat Harb front lines lay the headquarters of the socialist Tagammu party, an offshoot of Egypt's original single political party. Inside, dozens of party members and friends eased their tension with tea and conversation.
In a back office, party secretary general Sayed Abdelaal and vice president Anis el-Bayya sat in a circle of chairs and couches with other party members and a high-ranking woman from the Wafd – another opposition party that dates back to Egypt's early-20th-century independence movement.
Bayya said that Tagammu fully supported the "revolution," which he also called the "Egyptian intifada," or uprising. They spoke about where the movement should go from here, with all agreeing that change had to begin with Mubarak stepping down.
In the midst of the interview, a sudden rush from Mubarak supporters threatened to overwhelm the barricades visible on the street below. A Tagammu official assured us that the crowd would not reach the offices, which was guarded by young men associated with the party, but he said that the building had been surrounded two days earlier and its occupants threatened.
After the pro-democracy protesters beat the crowd back, Bayya resumed, reinforcing reports that elements from the opposition as well as Western governments and some parts of the Egyptian bureaucracy itself were already planning on ways to ease Mubarak, a former air force officer, out of power.
Most recently, in a televised speech on Tuesday night, Mubarak promised not to run for re-election in September but said he would not step down before then.
Bayya said that a plan was being drawn up whereby all the powers of the presidency would be transferred from Mubarak to Omar Suleiman, the former head of Egyptian intelligence who Mubarak recently appointed – for the first time in his 30-year term – as vice president.
This would be a first step toward removing Mubarak from his post entirely. A transitional government led by Suleiman and steered by a committee of establishment, opposition and military leaders would then take hold until new presidential elections this fall.
Both the People's Assembly, the lower house of parliament, and the Shoura Council, the upper house, would be dissolved and new elections held. The constitution would be revamped to reign in presidential power and eliminate the emergency national security laws in place since the assassination of Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat.
Bayya seemed unsatisfied with the response of US president Barack Obama to the crisis, and described the United States as acting in support of the protesters only after it was clear that they were powerful enough to hold on.
"The US position changes each day with developments on the ground," he said. "The Egyptian people have their own agenda and their own plans on how to develop."
The United States also misunderstands the situation on the ground, he said. They were fearful that unrest would unleash sectarian violence, recently heightened with the New Year's Eve church bombing in Alexandria, but Bayya said that "this revolution includes Christians, Muslims, extremist Muslims, communists, socialists and all kinds of people from all political spectrums and religions".
Outside the office, another commotion arose suddenly, though this time it was joyous. Men bowed and prayed in the street; one ripped off his shirt and swung it above his head. In the main room outside the office, people jumped from their seats and hugged, yelling that Mubarak had suddenly announced his resignation.
But as all eyes quickly became glued to the television set showing Al Jazeera Arabic, no confirmation came. As the false rumour rippled through Tahrir Square like wildfire, briefly electrifying the crowd, the Tagammu crowd realised their hopes had been dashed, for now.
With reporting by Rowan el-Shimi.
Source: Al Jazeera