When supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak attacked protesters in Cairo this week, the tactic, if not the ferocity, was familiar to veterans of Egyptian politics. For years, pro-government gangs have prowled the streets in election times, lashing out with fists and clubs.
After two days of deadly clashes, violent backers of Mubarak were mostly absent on Friday from Tahrir Square, scene of huge protests. As in the past, they enjoyed at least tacit approval from the state, or elements of it, disbanding as quickly as they formed.
“The people we found on the streets are incredibly familiar to us,” said Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a non-governmental group. “They have always been used or employed to do the dirty business of the government or police.”
The Mubarak government rejects accusations that it orchestrates brazen assaults by gangs with no formal affiliation in an apparent effort to distance the state from direct responsibility. It denied involvement in the fighting at Tahrir Square, but apologized, acknowledging signs that it was “organized” and promising an investigation.
This two-track approach — denial and a pledge to get to the bottom of the violence — reflects the contradiction of Mubarak’s rule over nearly three decades.
The thugs who seek to enforce government authority are a separate group from Egyptians who peacefully support the president.
Last November, pro-Mubarak men stormed polling stations, scaring off voters as police stood by. During 2005 elections, suspected security officials in plainclothes beat demonstrators and journalists, and there were reports of sexual assaults on female protesters.
During parliamentary elections in 2000, many voters complained that plainclothes police tried to pressure them into revealing their political allegiance in order to let only supporters of the ruling National Democratic Party into polling stations.
Security officials deny taking sides, blaming political partisans for such unrest. However, the spectacle of thousands of Mubarak backers armed with firebombs, knives and whips converging on Tahrir Square on Wednesday without military intervention suggested a degree of collaboration with the state.
“We have orders not to leave here,” one man in the crowd was overheard saying on his cellphone, who spoke quietly and moved away when he realized someone was close enough to hear.
The Mubarak partisans tended to be heavyset men in their 30s or 40s, in contrast to anti-government protesters who come from a broad range of ages and backgrounds. Some of those involved in election attacks were believed to be thugs hired for the day.
Bahgat said he first saw pro-Mubarak supporters gathering on Tuesday evening around the heavily guarded state TV building. There were a few hundred, some assembling signs with slogans.
“We thought that this was just a media stunt to show that not everyone on the streets is pro-democratic,” he said. “What came as an utter shock to us was the decision of the army to allow them access to Tahrir Square.”
Bahgat said “anecdotal evidence” indicates ruling party officials and lawmakers, as well as neighborhood officials, may have had a role in organizing the pro-Mubarak group. However, he said there was no sign that the crowd received “clear instructions” from any government office or police department.