Over the past week, thousands of Egyptians opposed to President Hosni Mubarak have led the way on demonstrations in Cairo, orchestrating huge crowds in a bid to get the U.S.-backed leader to step down after 30 years in power.
That situation changed on Wednesday, when protesters faced push-back from those claiming to support the beleaguered president. The two sides rained stones, bottles, firebombs and even satellite dishes (ripped off nearby buildings) on each other.
Egypt's health minister said at least three people were killed and more thay 600 wounded in the violence. The timing of the violent clashes comes a day after Mubarak announced on state television Tuesday that he would try to return the country to normal and would not leave office until the end of his term in September.
Egypt “faces a choice between chaos and stability,” said Mubarak, who indicated he would dispatch police to apprehend those responsible for arson and other illegal actions in the past week. “My first responsibility now is to restore the security and stability of the nation to achieve a peaceful transition.”
As the clashes between anti- and pro-Mubarak protesters spiraled into bloody violence on Wednesday, questions arose about just who was instigating the mayhem and whether the Mubarak government was going so far as to order and pay people to protest on its behalf.
Frederik Pleitgen of CNN reported on Wednesday that some men he had spoken to said that they were state oil company workers who had been ordered to join regime supporters on the streets.
The pro-Mubarak protesters at first said they had no intention of initiating a confrontation, according to a report Wednesday in the Guardian. Some of them told the British newspaper that they had been brought in by bus in from the countryside and some had swapped sides in recent days, saying Mubarak had given enough concessions and he should have time to usher through political change.
The New York Times reported that several people reported being offered the equivalent of less than $10 by ruling party operatives to demonstrate in the square for Mubarak.
The opposition movement, which includes the Muslim Brotherhood and ElBaradei, former head of the UN atomic agency, accuses Mubarak of running a corrupt and repressive government.
In Cairo, pro-regime protesters carried banners including "We love you, Mubarak." Some of them tried to storm the building of Al-Shorouk, where scores of journalists and workers remain trapped in the building, Bloomberg editor Wael Gamal said by telephone.
"There is a risk of a low-level civil war," said Moustafa El-Husseini, author of "Egypt on the Brink of the Unknown," said by telephone from Cairo.
The army would probably intervene to prevent such a conflict, said Barak Seener, a research fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute of Defence and Security Studies.
"There is the potential for this to get out of hand but I think the military would step in before there was a civil war," said Seener. "I wouldn’t go so far as to say Mubarak engineered these clashes but they feed into his narrative that he is needed for stability."
The White House on Wednesday spoke against the violence.
"If any of the violence is instigated by the government it should stop immediately," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, while declining to speculate whether the government was in fact behind the violence. Protesters contend plainclothes police are among the pro-government attackers.
"The president found the images outrageous and deplorable," the press secretary said.
Meanwhile, CNN was reporting that several of its journalists heard from pro-Mubarak demonstrators that they worked for the government.
"These (pro-Mubarak) protests were organized by the government and the ruling National Democratic Party," analyst Kamal Zakher told CNN. The government mustered government workers and lawmakers whose seats are threatened, he said.
"They were ordered to go out today. They are well organized and that is suspicious -- especially the use of camels and horses. These are abnormal techniques to demonstrate," he said, referring to the shocking charge of about 50 or 60 mounted men through Tahrir in the middle of the afternoon.