Crowd becomes an army in Egypt's street protests - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Crowd becomes an army in Egypt's street protests

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CAIRO (AP) — It was a makeshift army, civilian protesters thrust into combat against backers of President Hosni Mubarak in the fight for Tahrir Square. Some were rooftop sentries. Others were runners who ferried rubble to front-line stone-throwers, or cheerleaders who banged on metal to harden their comrades' nerve.

And they held their ground.

Some of the scenes seemed almost medievaIt was a makeshift army, civilian protesters thrust into combat against backers of President Hosni Mubarak in the fight for Tahrir Square.l: mass charges by men on horses and camels, brandishing swords and whips, as a peaceful protest encampment on the central Cairo Square was transformed into a bloody battleground.

Clerks, lawyers and students fashioned makeshift helmets from cardboard or ringed their heads with plastic soda bottles to deflect the stones. As firebombs rained down, they held aloft traffic signs as shields.

The fight was modern, too. Anti-government protesters said three in their ranks were fatally shot by pro-Mubarak gunmen, while the military, parked in tanks nearby, did little to stop the combat.

At least eight people have been killed and hundreds injured since the clashes erupted Wednesday; they continued into the night Thursday.

The pro-Mubarak group was a mix of ruling party loyalists, private-sector employees and Egypt's poorest. Some Egyptians believe anti-government protesters are fomenting chaos and should give Mubarak time to prove he is serious about reform.

"We are Egyptians together, but those who are occupying Tahrir Square now are not," said Ali Kamal, a 30-year-old sales manager. He accused protesters of religious extremism.

The violence amounts to a battle for Egypt, and the outcome could resonate far beyond the borders of this regional heavyweight. It's a war between the old order and those who want a new one — right now.

For some, it is history in the making, with slogans to match. "Blood is the fuel of the revolution," declared Waheed Hamad, a 40-year-old teacher.

For those caught up in the smoke and screams, defending their camp in Tahrir Square, it felt like a battle for their lives, with all the attendant emotion: fear, rage and exhilaration.

The combat was an impromptu showcase for the fluid power of people to organize, many for the first time. While some anti-government protesters fought police during deadly clashes last week and knew the taste of tear gas and truncheons, a large number were novices and hardly militant. They were the anonymous faces of Egypt's vast, fraying middle class, the pillar of the campaign to oust Mubarak after nearly 30 years in power.

The protesters in Tahrir Square had no formal leadership, no lieutenants and no spokesmen, but they quickly set up a system for the skirmishes that unfolded.

There were six fronts, all on routes leading out of the vast plaza. On each, pro- and anti-government groups took cover behind sheets of corrugated iron or traffic barricades.

The most active front was at the northern entrance to the square, near the Egyptian Museum and under a flyover that gave Mubarak partisans the advantage of high ground even though they were outnumbered.

Anti-government protesters set up a kind of rock depot in their midst, and volunteers ferried rubble to forward positions where fighters used it as missiles.

Some fighters broke up the sidewalk, others divided the chunks by size and still others filled containers of all kinds, including a fast food delivery box, for relay to the front lines. Women brought water in plastic bags to the stone-throwers. Three or four women joined in lobbing stones.

"It was a whole industry in place, a production line," said 29-year-old Tarek Shalaby, who described himself as a "social media consultant."

Over 16 hours, he flitted between tasks, hurling stones and beating metal railings with sticks to rally the resolve of comrades. He suffered a burn on his hand from a firebomb.

Shalaby described the loose ranks of a civilian army, with four or five medics in a mid-range position to swiftly remove the injured. Further back, men gave orders to stone-throwers.

"They would be shouting to us from the back: 'Aim right!' 'Aim left, behind the museum!'" Shalaby said.

The organizing force behind the pro-Mubarak fighters remains a mystery, though the fact that they roamed at will around the square suggests at least the tacit approval of the government, or sections of it. They were dressed in civilian clothes, and spoiling for a showdown.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq apologized for the chaos, acknowledging it "seemed to have been organized" and promised an investigation. Mubarak, who has pledged not to run again for office, still has support within his government as well as among Egyptians who feel the anti-government protesters are causing too much disruption.

With two bandages on his head — one for a rubber bullet wound early in the week, the other for a rock injury on Wednesday — 26-year-old Ahmad Hassan described sentries posted on roofs and balconies to spot attackers.

During the fighting, one man waved his arms like a traffic controller on an airport runway, directing demonstrators to a road near the Egyptian Museum where pro-Mubarak forces were believed to be trying to infiltrate.

Hundreds of men grabbed chunks of paving stone and raced forward. But then another man waved his hands across his chest in a horizontal motion.

The crowd understood: false alarm. They melted back into the square.

Early Thursday, it was easier to identify the front-line combatants of the anti-government crowd. Many wore grubby bandages of cotton padding on their faces, arms and legs. They had clumps of debris in their hair.

A large number had the trimmed beards of Muslim conservatives, a sign of how the Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed opposition group, played a major role in the fight. "This is a peaceful jihad," one protester said.

At sunset, calm settled in as groups of up to 100 stopped to pray. "God, please don't let us leave this location until we are victorious," they intoned. "God, take revenge on those who hurt us."

But for many, there was no religious dimension — just years of resentment toward the government for Egypt's ills: poverty, corruption and brutality. Fury fueled a kind of pride.

"Young people, head to the entrances," exhorted a young man with a microphone at the peak of the fighting. "You, youth of Egypt, be brave."

As the sun rose Thursday, fighters curled close to each other, asleep in the crowded square. One man slept in a doorway, a scruffy kitten nestled on his chest.

___

Associated Press writers Maggie Michael and Hadeel al-Shalchi contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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