A pro-Mubarak supporter kisses an image of the Egyptian president in Cairo… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)
Reporting from Cairo — His anger hides in the mask of a smile.
President Hosni Mubarak does not tolerate dissension. He is inclined to crush it rather than compromise. Those born since his rule began in 1981 have lived entirely under emergency law, among the spookily omnipresent security forces that can pluck a soul from the street and vanish in an instant.
The bloodshed between Mubarak's supporters and anti-government demonstrators Wednesday in Tahrir Square was not a spontaneous act of political passion but an orchestrated mission, opposition leaders say, by thugs hired by the ruling party to put fear into those clamoring for change.
What the day before was a protest, with the mood of a carnival, turned into a street brawl of fists and machetes. Three people were killed and more than 600 were wounded. The injured were carried away, their ripped shirts brushing the ground. Soldiers sat on tanks and did little to stop the violence around them.
The brutality was stunning, and sad. Stones and Molotov cocktails flew past the National Museum, where ancient artifacts stood endangered by modern rage. Men rode bareback on horses and camels, swinging sticks. Mobs surged and retreated, then regrouped and surged again. Smoke rolled and plumed over the Nile as the wounded stumbled into a makeshift hospital.
This was Egypt from early afternoon into night.
Mubarak, who hours earlier had promised unity, was championed by gangs that sought to further tear the nation in order to protect his rule.
The specter was a disturbing culmination of 30 years of a country growing brittle from within. Mubarak's government has been marked more by the consolidation of power — and providing riches for those at its core — than for lifting a people into a new era. Once the nexus of the Arab world, Egypt today has sagged in stature like so many of the balustrades on its once-fine boulevards.
Poverty reaches across Nile Delta villages and into the deepest city alleys. The poor must hustle, chasing rusted minivans, bickering in markets, standing in bread lines, praying for work. They laugh and weep in shared misery, like weary soldiers summoned to take an impossible hill. More than 40% live on less than $2 a day. Desperation is their twin.
One man recently summed up the frustration in his country: "We are eating one another."
Travel Egypt and you see why: the fisherman with torn nets, the woman who lives on the rooftop because she can't afford a room in the house, the boy who sells baskets in the street and sleeps in the dirt, and the laborer with empty pockets and a family in need who, one day after dinner, hanged himself above a donkey stall.
Many of those who challenged the government ended up jailed and tortured. Political opponents were threatened. Elections, like the parliamentary poll in November, defied mathematical odds by sweeping the ruling party to power while other candidates and their supporters were intimidated by hoodlums. More than 1,200 Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters were arrested.
Mubarak's power resides in the darker magic of fear. It has worked for decades. The poor are too poor to protest, intellectuals are bottled up, activists hounded; everyone is kept off balance. There are glimmers of democracy, including rambunctious, independent news media, but they are viewed more as annoyances than threats to the ruling party. It's a creepy, unpredictable climate: One never knows if one will be ignored or arrested.
Egyptians used to joke that they were too complacent, too in love with enjoying life, even amid its grind, to rise up. Then the Tunisians overthrew their authoritarian leader. The Egyptians saw what they hoped was a kinship in the Tunisian spirit. They filled the streets, they poured into squares. The police retreated.
Mubarak hasn't. The economy is in turmoil. Buildings burn. Protesters chant. In all this, Mubarak sees sedition, a people manipulated by sinister forces to challenge his rule. He told his countrymen Tuesday night that he and they were "were quickly exploited by those who sought to spread chaos and violence, confrontation and to violate the constitutional legitimacy and to attack it."
He refused to step down. The government enforcers arrived the next day.
"I'm scared," Ahmed Hesham, an anti-government protester, said by phone as he stood in the square at night facing the pro-Mubarak crowd. "I went out to march Tuesday and Friday for my rights. But now Mubarak is making the Egyptian people face off against one another. It's all for his benefit. He's saying, 'Without the police and my government, look at the chaos you will create.'"
Hesham attempted to work his way through the crowd to get home. Bearded men hunkered near him in the square, urging anti-government demonstrators: "Stand up for your life and fight. This is the day to see Allah."
Hesham then mentioned something that is as strong as a president's grip.
"My mother told me to come today," he said. "She's putting cotton on the wounds of the injured. I came to stand beside her.
"She told me, 'Come to the square to help it look crowded so others won't be frightened and they will come too.' "