Cairo, Egypt – The mood could not have been more different on Wednesday night in the area surrounding Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, from the previous day.
On Tuesday, hours after I touched down in Egypt, tens of thousands were gathered protesting in the square, yelling chants like “Mubarak – you must leave! We will not leave!” and “Mubarak, you coward, you American collaborator!”
The mood was almost celebratory and jovial, with people serving tea to each other, cleaning up empty plastic containers that once held their dinner and posing happily for photographs.
“I can’t believe this is our country,” one man said his voice filled with amazement. Protest organizers, wanting to ensure that their rally remained peaceful, searched attendees for weapons and required everyone entering the square to present a form of ID.
When it looked like anyone was going to lose their temper, they were sure to hold them back. The atmosphere was controlled, and the group was determined to keep it civil.
On Wednesday, thousands of supporters of embattled President Hosni Mubarak descended on the protestors, throwing huge rocks and beating them with sticks. They also targeted journalists, threatening anyone holding a notebook or recorder and physically attacking photographers.
I was mobbed after I snapped a picture of a Mubarak supporter who’d been injured. He was unable to walk on his own so two of his friends helped hold him up. He approached me and yelled at me to delete the photograph immediately. On other occasions, there were near stampedes as the Mubarak supporters ran in a crowd after throwing rocks at the protestors inside Tahrir. There were bloodied bandages all around.
Near the rock-throwing pro-government youth, a group of men approached me to share their side of the story, they said, one they felt was under-reported.
“We lived here in Egypt in security for 30 years. In six days, we’ve lived without any security,” said Adel Syed, 45.
There is corruption. I won’t dispute that. But Mubarak told them everything they want to hear and they’re still not happy.
The government supporters blamed outside influence for the protests, claiming (without providing any evidence) that they were organized, in part, by the Palestinian movement Hamas in order to ensure the opening of Egypt’s Rafah crossing with Gaza. They also blamed Iran and the United States for having a hand in the massive demonstrations.
“The protestors want Egypt to collapse but it won’t. It never will,” said Tarek El-Doussouky, a 46 year-old lawyer wearing a beige suit. “The Egyptian people are aware of the foreign intervention.”
Hazem Abdul Wahd, 35, who also works as a lawyer agreed. “There are outsiders trying to implement a foreign political agenda,” he said.
“Those people are not real Egyptians. They are Egyptians living abroad. There are Iranians and Palestinians in there,” he added, referring to the square.
“There are 85 million Egyptians,” El-Doussouky said, “and you’re not hearing from them. The majority agrees with us.”
As I got to leave, the group started chanting “We will die and Mubarak should live. We will die for him.”
Blocks away, a hotel security guard, Wael Ibrahim, 26, told me he agreed with the protestors calling for Mubarak’s resignation, but that he could not join them because he had to work.
“I always wanted to be a lawyer, but there are no jobs,” he said. “You need a wasta (connection) and those only go to people who are close to the government.” Wael did not want me to mention where he worked and would not allow me to record the interview for fear of reprisals from government supporters.
When one of his co-workers approached on a motorbike, he turned away. The conversation was over.