Photo by Al Jazeera English. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Looks like Mubarak doesn't want to go with dignity. Things have gotten very ugly indeed today in Cairo. As usual, it's hard to be 100% certain about the information coming in, but a fairly clear picture seems to have emerged nevertheless. Here's the story as I see it. I'm dropping the "I believe" and "probably" and other disclaimers for readability; keep in mind that what follows is something I've put together from a stream of data from a variety of source ranging from professional reporters tweeting from on location to news reports to random but possibly credible Net chatter.
First, the main players.
We have the Egyptian army. It is a conscript force. That means that it's going to be very hard to get it to fire on demonstrators. They can, essentially, occupy space. They're about 460,000 strong, and armed with modern weaponry entirely unsuited to the current situation.
We have the Interior Ministry "police" forces. This is a professional force, paid by Mubarak and his ministers.
Mubarak wants to avoid a full-on Tiananmen-style massacre by armed and uniformed forces, partly because there's a good chance it wouldn't work, and partly because it would probably force Obama to cut off the $1.3B paid annually to him. Also, the military wouldn't do it anyway. The police might.
First, he made a speech yesterday which suggested that victory was almost around the corner. This got a good many of the demonstrators on Tahrir Square to go home. Then, he got the religious authorities in the country, with whom he clearly has a lot of leverage, to ask that demonstrations be called off. Both the Coptic Pope Shenouda and the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa complied. This much is uncontroversial.
Then, he dressed up the police in civvies, distributed signs and leaflets to them, equipped them with melee weapons, and sent them in a coordinated attack on the now half empty Tahrir Square. Reporters on location—among them Nick Kristof from NY Times, Ben Wedemann of CNN, Lyse Doucet of BBC, and a big bunch from Al Jazeera, are all corroborating this; also, police ID's taken from "pro-Mubarak demonstrators" have been broadcast on TV.
It's hard to tell what the big picture is around the country; the attention has been mostly focused on and around Tahrir Square. There has been fighting, injuries, and deaths, as well as arson and looting. In any case, the carnival atmosphere of the preceding days is gone. This is now serious.
I still think it's unlikely Mubarak will survive this. John Simpson on BBC outlined a couple of scenarios by which these kinds of things usually play out. Worth a read.
By ordering his thugs to Tahrir, Mubarak crossed a Rubicon. It's now a fight to the end. Either he manages to break the spirit of the demonstrators, or vice versa.
I don't think today's events will do it. The first week belonged to the revolutionaries. Today's outcome is still unclear. There will be more of the same in the coming days.
And let's not forget that this is being played out all over Egypt, not just on a square in Cairo. The square is of symbolic value only; if the thugs succeed in driving off the demonstrators, that will, in and of itself, mean nothing.
This may take a while yet.