A demonstrator protects his head during clashes with Mubarak supporters. (Mohammed Abed, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Cairo — Amid an accelerating breakdown of law and order across Egypt's capital, anti-government protesters have set the stage for a potentially explosive new confrontation by declaring that Friday, the main prayer day of the Muslim week, is the deadline for the embattled president to step aside.
The crowd in Tahrir Square at dawn Friday was small but defiant. The sound of Koranic chants and nationalistic songs mingled with the morning calls of birds — a tranquil atmosphere likely to be shattered as organizers of the anti-government protests called on Egyptians to rally after prayers Friday.
The previous day, volleys of gunfire had echoed through the city's heart, and senior government officials had offered a flurry of political concessions, seeking to placate protesters calling for President Hosni Mubarak to step down.
Yet Mubarak, 82, has refused to cede power, even in the face of strong prodding by the White House to ease tensions quickly.
He told ABC News on Thursday that there would be "chaos" if he acceded to demonstrators' demands and asserted that his departure would pave the way for a takeover by Islamists.
Mubarak has already said he will not seek reelection in September, but protest leaders have rejected the idea of him staying on in the meantime.
On Thursday, battles raged for hours near the banks of the Nile River, with anti-Mubarak demonstrators spilling out of their stronghold of nearby Tahrir Square and pushing back pro-Mubarak elements who had attacked the plaza a day earlier. The army moved decisively for the first time to separate the rival camps, but its efforts were often ineffectual. Fierce fighting spread into surrounding streets.
Speaking on state television, Mubarak's newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, appeared to reach out to the protesters, thanking them for initiating a push for reform and reiterating an offer to negotiate with the Muslim Brotherhood, a driving force behind the protest movement. Suleiman also said Mubarak's son Gamal, whom many expected the president to try to install as his heir, would not seek election either.
And in unusual move, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik publicly apologized for Wednesday's violence, saying its instigators would be punished. "This issue will not be forgotten, will not go away just like that," he said.
The government has denied involvement in Wednesday's seemingly well-coordinated onslaught by pro-Mubarak partisans against protesters camped in the square. Leaders of the protest contend that the attacking force included plainclothes police, common criminals and paid thugs.
Signaling a widening campaign of intimidation, suspected pro-Mubarak elements Thursday harassed human rights workers and targeted foreign journalists, roughing up some reporters, and dozens of others were detained by authorities. That crackdown followed assertions by state-run television that the foreign media have been unduly sympathetic to the protest movement.
Foreign tourists and residents continued to flee in the thousands, braving a gantlet of vigilante checkpoints to get to the international airport.
Unlike the generally friendly neighborhood patrols that appeared earlier this week, some of the new checkpoints were manned by angry young men who swarmed around cars they considered suspicious. At one such checkpoint, men in civilian clothes forced three foreigners out of their car and searched their bags and the car trunk. They demanded to inspect passports and searched for cameras.
"Foreigners have been stirring up a lot of trouble here," said a uniformed police officer who was supervising the young men at a downtown checkpoint.
Thursday's street battles were smaller in scope than those a day earlier, but were nonetheless fierce — and frightening for those caught up in the clashes.
The army had attempted to keep the two sides apart, planting tanks and soldiers in the no-man's land between enemy lines. But the protesters' shift out of Tahrir Square onto open ground near the Nile greatly complicated the military's task. Bound by the army's pledge not to fire on protesters, soldiers trying to keep order were at times reduced to trying to wave combatants away.
Pro-Mubarak forces roamed freely in many neighborhoods, particularly the downtown business district. Groups of men armed with sticks and cudgels were seen confiscating food and water apparently meant for the square's defenders.
Protest organizers, in turn, said they had detained dozens of pro-Mubarak attackers who infiltrated the square, turning a travel agency there into a temporary holding center. But rough justice was sometimes dispensed on the spot for suspected provocateurs.
"No, no, I'm one of you!" a panicked man cried out in protest as he was seized by a crowd of anti-government demonstrators, who set upon him with fists and sticks. Protesters set up a small exhibition of what they said were police IDs seized from some of those who attacked the square.