CAIRO — Within minutes, the buoyant mood inside Tahrir Square turned into a fight for survival — and for Egypt's future.
Like two medieval armies, screaming, enraged mobs — both hoisting Egyptian flags and professing love of country — clashed violently Wednesday with rocks, sticks, knives and Molotov cocktails. Soldiers stood passively by as the pitched battle between supporters of President Hosni Mubarak and those seeking to oust him immediately threatened one of the nation's most treasured landmarks, the Egyptian Museum.
The periphery of the square took on the look of a city of zombies as stunned antigovernment demonstrators poured out of the plaza with bandaged, blood-smeared faces.
Four deaths were reported at the square and more than 600 people were injured, government officials said, but news reports suggested the toll was higher.
As the front line moved up and down the promenade and each side advanced and retreated, one or two combatants would invariably fall behind and be caught by the other side. When antigovernment protesters captured one such Mubarak supporter, they dragged him off to the side of the road and pummeled him. A woman beat him with a 2 by 4. Finally, other protesters stepped in and dragged him to the military to protect his life.
By dusk, pro-Mubarak protesters had positioned themselves on rooftops of office and residential buildings, hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails on antigovernment protesters below. Not long after, antigovernment protesters occupied their own rooftops, and hurled their own fire bombs at their foes.
After midnight, 10 hours after the clashes began, the two sides were locked in a standoff, with the anti-Mubarak protesters hunkered behind sheets of metal, which they used as shields against rocks and fire.
Shortly before dawn today, the battle seemed to be escalating as the sound of heavy gunfire could be heard on TV reports on CNN. Correspondent Ivan Watson said he had seen several men carried out with what appeared to be gunshot wounds and was hearing calls for ambulances over loudspeakers in Tahrir Square. Fires continued to burn near the Egyptian Museum.
The crisis has entered an uncertain and dangerous new phase, with Mubarak, 82, intent on serving until fall elections and activists vowing not to leave the streets until he leaves office.
Signs that the pro-Mubarak forces were organized and possibly professional were abundant. When the melee broke out, a group of them tried to corner a couple of journalists in an alley to halt their reporting.
Their assaults on the protesters seemed to come in well-timed waves. Protesters said that some of the Mubarak supporters carried police identification.
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The day of combat had begun peacefully enough, with the first mass rally of Mubarak supporters held in the posh shopping district of Mohandiseen.
Many who gathered there said they were saddened by Mubarak's announcement Tuesday night that he would relinquish power after three decades. Calling for a return to stability, some expressed fear that an immediate resignation by Mubarak would throw Egypt into chaos. At some point, however, the professed desire for a return to normalcy gave way to anger, taunts and violence.
Some Mubarak loyalists marched toward Tahrir, crossing the Nile and gaining numbers along the way.
In one scene, a small contingent of pro-Mubarak forces on horseback and camels rushed into the antigovernment crowds, trampling several people and swinging whips and sticks. Protesters dragged some riders from their mounts, throwing them to the ground and beating their faces bloody. The horses and camels appeared to be ones used to give tourists rides around Cairo.
Shortly thereafter, thousands more pro-Mubarak demonstrators approached the square, walking without interruption through military checkpoints.
By three o'clock, the two sides faced off along on a promenade next to the vaunted museum, hurling rocks and pieces of pavement stones dug up from the road.
Finally the military positioned large green trucks in the middle of the road to create a buffer zone between the two sides. But two hours later, those trucks had been destroyed by rocks and fire, caused by the pro-Mubarak force's Molotov cocktails.
"We're not leaving," said Omar Adli, a bearded anti-Mubarak protester, who ran off to exchange punches with a pro-Mubarak foe. "We'll sit under the tanks if the army tries to stop us."
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Confronted by the scenes of bloody chaos in Cairo, the White House on Wednesday challenged Mubarak to show the world "exactly who he is" by quickly leading a peaceful transition to democracy.
"Now means now," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, and he declared anew that continued aid to Egypt would be influenced by the Egyptian government's response to the crisis.
Gibbs was echoing President Barack Obama's public call one night earlier for an immediate and orderly transition to democracy in Egypt.
"If any of the violence is instigated by the government, it should stop immediately," Gibbs said, while declining to speculate whether the Egyptian government was in fact behind the violence.
Obama is trying to find a balance between responding appropriately to events without being sucked up in hour-by-hour reaction. Gibbs said history was being made, and "this is not all going to be wrapped up in a matter of hours. It's going to take some time."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called for Mubarak to transfer power to a caretaker government immediately, saying the conditions in Egypt were deteriorating too quickly. McCain issued a statement calling for Mubarak to step down shortly after meeting privately with Obama.
Later, McCain said he did not tell Obama that he would call for Mubarak to relinquish the presidency. "I did not want to connect it to our meeting," he said.
Information from the Associated Press, McClatchy-Tribune and New York Times was used in this report.