|Violence raged all night in and around Cairo's Liberation Square between pro-democracy and pro-Mubarak groups
CAIRO, EGYPT - Violent clashes raged for much of Wednesday around Tahrir Square in central Cairo, where protesters threw rocks and homemade bombs over the heads of a handful of mostly helpless Egyptian army soldiers.
Up to 1,500 people were injured, some of them seriously, and by the day's end at least three deaths were reported by the Reuters news agency quoting officials.
The interior minister had instructed protesters to evacuate the square, which stoked fears that a harsher security crackdown was probably coming.
Anti-government protesters who have occupied Tahrir Square for more than a week found themselves besieged on Wednesday night by thousands of pro-government demonstrators who swarmed into the area from rallies and marches held earlier in support of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's president since 1981.
The demonstrations began peacefully, with government supporters waving signs and chanting in front of state television cameras along the Corniche, just half a kilometre from Tahrir.
In Dokki, in western Cairo, thousands gathered in Lebanon Square, chanting "He won't go," in reference to Mubarak, as they watched camel riders and horse-cart drivers parade in circles around the square.
But in the afternoon, the two groups merged, and it quickly became evident that a clash was inevitable.
The largest phalanx of pro-government forces gathered next to the Egyptian Museum, and thousands surged toward the army tanks that have been blocking the road into Tahrir for days.
The camel and horse riders from Dokki galloped through the crowd, as others launched a barrage of rocks toward the protesters inside Tahrir.
Anti-government protesters responded with their own fusillade, and the pro-government demonstrators fled backwards, pressing onlookers up against the walls of the museum and the green metal barricades along the road.
The rocks, ranging from pebble to brick sized, flew almost continuously for the next half-hour, sometimes so frequently that a dozen or so could be seen in the air at the same time.
Gunfire, likely the army attempting to disperse the crowd by shooting into the air, could be heard during the opening moments of the fight but soon subsided.
By 6pm, violence flared near the Kasr al-Nil bridge, which connects the Nile island of Zamalek with Tahrir. A group of around 500 pro-Mubarak demonstrators launched a barrage of rocks over three army tanks barricading the road.
Demonstrators inside the square responded with rocks of their own, and a 15-minute battle ensued, with thousands of stones - some of them more than six inches in diameter - flying through the air.
On the pro-Mubarak side, groups of women and children stood by watching the fighting, while a vendor sold hot tea.
Later at night, the fighting reached a crescendo at the Egyptian Museum, where hundreds on both sides threw rocks at each other, and the pro-Mubarak forces eventually began hurling petrol bombs.
Several government vehicles were burned in the road and reportedly formed a barricade between the two sides. People could be seen on the roofs of three highrises overlooking the front line, throwing rocks and eventually more petrol bombs on the crowd below. Adding to the chaos of the scene, it was unclear which side they were fighting on.
Ambulances were hard-pressed to reach the wounded inside Tahrir, which remains barricaded by the army and thousands of angry protesters, but one or two could occasionally be seen entering from comparatively peaceful streets on the south side of the square.
Behind the pro-Mubarak crowd by the Egyptian Museum, six or seven ambulances were usually on hand.
For the most part, the army took no action. Soldiers ducked inside their tanks when the rocks started flying at Kasr al-Nil. To the north, next to the Egyptian Museum, the army ultimately did nothing to quell the waves of back-and-forth violence.
The violence on Wednesday was preceded on Tuesday by Mubarak's second major speech to address the widespread unrest that has enveloped Egypt in the wake of an uprising in nearby Tunisia.
After hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters gathered in Tahrir Square on Tuesday night to voice their continued refusal to leave until Mubarak stepped down. Mubarak made a televised night-time announcement that he would not run for re-election in September.
The crowd's response to speech was overwhelmingly negative, and the massive pro-Mubarak response on Wednesday therefore had a stage-managed feel.
Small gangs formed in residential neighbourhoods, then crossed into central Cairo. In the Agouza neighbourhood in western Cairo, a group of about 50 people - almost all of them young men - banged drums and chanted slogans around 9am.
A slightly larger group marched through Dokki's central square several hours later; they were met by cheers from a group of roughly a dozen bystanders, all of whom delivered the same pro-government speech to an Al Jazeera reporter.
"We've had president Mubarak for 30 years, and he has kept Egypt at peace," said Ibrahim, a man standing outside a watch shop on Dokki Street. "He has served Egypt through peace and war, he devoted his life to Egypt."
Mubarak himself used similar language during his televised address on Tuesday night.
There were frequent reports that the pro-Mubarak demonstrators were being paid to rally. Al Jazeera could not confirm this – two demonstrators, asked if they were being paid, denied the allegation - but it was an allegation made by several people who watched the protesters.
"You know they're paid for this, right?" a woman named Nahedah asked as the Agouza gang passed by. "They get 50 Egyptian pounds ($9) for the day, and they rally."
Police officers at the rally in Lebanon Square in Dokki could be seen filming the crowd and smiling.
'Yes to Mubarak'
The demonstrators then marched downtown, crossing the 26th of July Bridge and passing the foreign ministry. The army erected several barricades along the Corniche, but protesters were allowed through each one, and they eventually began to reach Tahrir Square around noon.
Some were carrying weapons - clubs, long sticks, iron rods - and others carried signs with slogans like, "30 years of stability, nine days of anarchy", and, "Yes to Mubarak, no to chaos".
Many of the pro-Mubarak demonstrators were hostile not only to the group in Tahrir Square, but also to foreigners and journalists.
One Al Jazeera journalist covering the protests was chased away by an angry crowd, and was repeatedly called "a Jew" and "a dog".
Several television crews from other networks were attacked by mobs screaming, "Jazeera! Jazeera!"
At Lebanon Square, an Al Jazeera journalist who identified himself to an interview subject was soon mobbed by dozens of onlookers, some of whom told him to photograph and write "the truth" and others who harshly criticised the news network for not covering the pro-Mubarak demonstrations, yelling "F@!%# Al Jazeera" in English.
Others, including a police officer, tried to calm the crowd and told them that the journalist was just doing his job.
One of the most common chants at the pro-Mubarak rallies - after a reference to Mubarak saying "He won't leave" - was "Where is Al Jazeera? The Egyptian people are here!"
Others interviewed throughout Cairo on Wednesday gave the impression of a populace that is unnerved by the chaos it has witnessed in the past week and uncertain of what a Mubarak-less future might hold.
Mohammed Omar, watching the morning demonstration on the Corniche from 6th of October bridge, said that Mubarak had overseen improvements in roadways, sewage treatment, water provision and the holding of elections. He also praised government subsidies that keep most food prices low.
"What country in the world is spending every day to buy bread a half-pound [around 33 cents]?" he asked.
Sherif, a doctor standing outside a crowd near one of the city's few functioning ATMs, said that Egyptians were responding to 30 years of repression. "People just want change, they don’t know what's going on after this," he said.
At the pro-Mubarak demonstration in Lebanon Square, most toed the same line - that Mubarak has kept Egypt stable and safe for three decades.
Some even seemed ashamed at the behaviour of their fellow Egyptians, saying that Mubarak was being forced to leave in a way that was not "polite", and holding signs that apologised to him.
Ahmed Hassan, a soft-spoken man who was born the year Mubarak took power, offered a more nuanced view. Helping his friends hold a long banner in support of Mubarak, Hassan told Al Jazeera that he had been demonstrating in Tahrir two days earlier.
Hassan said that he wanted a change in the system, and that his demands had been met in Mubarak's Wednesday-night speech.
"There was no elections, no democracy; now I can express my opinion," he said. "We raised our voice, and I am satisfied."
Source: Al Jazeera