Nightly News   |  February 02, 2011

Mubarak cracks down in Cairo

President Mubarak proved on Wednesday he will not go down without a fight, sending thousands of goon squads to battle anti-government demonstrators for control of Tahrir Square. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

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>>> and good evening. once again from cairo, where today the atmosphere suddenly turned sour and toxic and is still disintegrating tonight, turning into a rock and molotov cocktail fight with open fires burning in front of the museum where 5,000 years of egyptian history is housed. it started unusually, the day did, with new groups of protesters in different clusters we hadn't seen before. it was readily apparent they were supporting hosni mubarak . it became clear later many of them were gangs of street thugs assembled for the occasion. some of them came in on horses, some of them came in on camels. and they were insurgents cutting through the lines of protesters who camped out and staked their home in the city square for days, making an inroad for the other side of this protest. tonight the night air is still on occasion crackling with gunfire from automatic weapons, small caliber and large. they have turned that square into an open human combat space. the number of injured starts conservative -- see a lot from the fight with the light of day . bordering on that square , not far from our location here tonight we can candidly smell the smoke from the fires here. our own richard engle has been covering it all day with us. richard , good evening.

>> reporter: good evening, brian . clashes are continuing between protesters and supporters of president mubarak . here in tahrir square , fires have broken out as the two sides exchanged molotov cocktails . for now it appears the protesters have the upper hand. president mubarak proved he will not go down without a fight. egypt ordered a crackdown against anti-government demonstrators, but not with troops, tanks or uniformed police. instead, it sent in goon squads disguised as supporters of president mubarak . it was immediately clear these were not demonstrators. thousands of mubarak supporters charged into cairo's tahrir square . the protesters unarmed were caught off guard by the surprise attack . the pro- mubarak demonstrators rushed the protesters on horseback. and with camels. the protesters fought back, ripping mubarak supporters out of their saddles. hand-to-hand fighting broke out. the protesters claim many of the pro- mubarak supporters were in fact policemen. some were reportedly caught carrying police i.d. others appear to have been the same enforcers president mubarak has often used to stuff ballot boxes and forge elections. this time mubarak used the mobs to save his presidency. by midday, tahrir square was a front line . the two sides battled with bricks, stones, even their fists. the egyptian army did not intervene. it fired tear gas and warning shots, but mostly just watched and appealed for calm. the goon squads also appeared to have orders to hunt journalists. they chased us down.

>> the clashes have started to spread outside of tahrir square . there is also a lot of angry people who are angry with journalists.

>> reporter: the government claims it didn't send any maubz to attack the protesters who want mubarak to leave the country, but that seems implausible and the protesters don't belief it. they arrived in coordinated groups and seemed to have a single mission to attack. they were using military-style tactics to seal off the square . the anti-government protesters are now trapped in the center of tahrir . mubarak supporters have moved in by the thousands to seal off all four corners of the square . they have been moving toward the center. that's where the heaviest clashes have been. we've seen molotov cocktails , and both sides are dropping firebombs from the rooftops onto the crowds below. in the darkness the two sides of tahrir and its side streets , using barricades to inch forward in the square , they fought with molotov cocktails , an all-out street war . president mubarak may have signalled the crackdown last night. in a televised speech, he said egyptians had to choose between chaos an stability. today mubarak 's choice was clear. a crackdown disguised as a counter protest . protest leaders, brian , we have spoken to from the middle of that battle say they would rather die than surrender. brian .

>> now, richard , this turned on a dime. this went toxic so quickly today,e ' looking back i don't know if there was one moment, but looking back one day, it's, almost comical a piece of videotape we aired on the broadcast last night. you and i? walking through the plaza, we were given a cursory security check byc civilians. ! it was kind of an open air , boy and the atmosphere. people had set up ???businesses. now if we'd make that same walk we'd be in the middle of this urban combatqekd? zone. what did we witness today? what happened?

>> this will probably bow remembered as a turning point3 egyptian history . if the protesters win, they believe8cca they will win egypt. if they lose, they say they will continue this fight and organize more protests.v-? it was relatively calm even in the morning today. there were a lot of families in the square . they wnin? planning on having a big demonstration and then suddenly starting just with the %?thousand, the pro- mubarak few m supporters arrived in a coordinated effort. # on buses some of them arrivedh and then throughout the day they were building and build and 8p their strength gre but now there aren't very many of the pro-government demonstrators still in the square and thewl protesters seem to be gaining ground and have broken out of that encirclement, that barricade that0hv @(t&h?hp &h&