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Who you calling a 'thug'?

Today's crackdown in Tahrir Square is horrific, but can anyone truly claim it's surprising? Journalistic parlance seems to have settled on the word "thug" to describe the attackers, but that seems to me to obscure more than it clarifies: I'm skeptical that a group of mercenaries spontaneously assembled early this morning and instructed itself on the finer points of counterinsurrection. Mubarak's Egypt was a security state, after all. In all likelihood, these are the people who held Mubarak's regime together in the dank corridors of the Interior Ministry, and this is the brutal manner in which they worked. Under Mubarak, menacing peaceful Egyptians had become a promising career path.

If it's hard to imagine that the "thugs" are motivated by ideological conviction -- Mubarak had no basis on which to indoctrinate a Basij or Revolutionary Guard -- it's easy to imagine they're acting out of self-interest and fear. The Egyptian military seems to have a place reserved for itself in whatever new order emerges. But who can say the same for the country's security services? When Egypt's emergency laws are eventually rescinded, who will have use for people practiced in torturing their fellow citizens? The people wielding machetes in Tahrir Square probably have a hazy vision of a future Egypt in search of scapegoats. And they know that there won't be a plane waiting to bring them out of the country, like there will be for Mubarak.

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Exclusive: The bloodbath in Tahrir Square

I just spoke on the phone with journalist Maryam Ishani, who is currently just outside the melee inside Tahrir Square. She described the brutal scene she has witnessed today, including the targeting of foreign journalists, attacks on horseback, Molotov cocktails, and automatic-weapons fire: 

MI: Throughout the day, the mood changed significantly, starting from noon. In the morning, I went through Tahrir just to see what was going on and it was actually quite quiet. [Sirens heard in the background.] It was very peaceful. There were women and children gathered. There were a lot of people praying. It was quite calm.

So I walked around and ran into CNN's Ben Wedeman. There were a lot of press walking around. It was very easy for press to get around Tahrir at that time. We moved out, hearing that there was a situation with pro-Mubarak demonstrators on the outside, coming in. So we walked towards them. They have a very different attitude toward the press right now. They are looking for press, even asking people to tell them where Al Jazeera is, where's Reuters? 

I lost Ben at that point. They let me through because I look Egyptian, but they won't let white press through. I was with three journalists -- French, German -- and I got into the square without them. 

Now, I'm basically stuck between what they've established as two cordons around Tahrir. One is established by pro-Mubarak demonstrators, whose job it is to keep people out of the square. That includes ambulances and anyone who's not on their side. They ask you if you're pro- or against. They're looking for Americans and foreigners. They're saying things like, "You brought Baradei. This is your fault. You're trying to break Egypt." They're quite hostile. They physically hit me with sticks. I went in to film them throwing stones and they knocked me back pretty hard, which is not the mood of the demonstrators inside the square.

The second cordon is also pro-Mubarak demonstrators, who are just beating up the demonstrators inside Tahrir. They have swords -- I'm not exaggerating -- they have things that look like machetes with a 12-inch blade or longer, sticks, pipes, automatic weapons. This is why people [are] saying they're actually police. They're in very large numbers, not just people who collected. They're generally all men between the ages of 20 or 30.

Among them are some pretty thuggish types. I walked down a street into a crowd of about 10 of them and I was so uncomfortable with the look on their face that I just turned right around. It literally looks like their job is to just beat people up. They're working their way into Tahrir an inch at a time with the cordon behind them keeping everyone out, specifically the press. They're confiscating cameras. They'll take things away and break them. They're throwing stones. They mean business in a way that hasn't been the case so far.

The army is not intervening at all on either side. There are a lot of injuries. I'm seeing ambulances treating four of five people with head injuries and cuts to the body from, I'm guessing, the knives.

There's a lot of live fire. It's difficult to tell which direction it's coming from. But I'm hearing both shotguns and automatic weapons. I really can't see what's happening inside the square, but it's certainly nothing good. 

JK: So the military is just watching?

MI: Absolutely. Right now, I'm walking past a tank with 11 soldiers sitting on top of it. They're not intervening at all. I'm actually seeing them move away from the protest. In one instance, I saw pro-Mubarak demonstrators throwing Molotov cocktails at anti-Mubarak demonstrators who were shielding themselves with wood or aluminum or whatever they can find. The tank between them literally rolled out of the way because it was taking hits from the Molotov cocktails.

JK: There were reports earlier of attacks on horseback. Have you seen any of that?

MI: Yes, I saw that. Men on horseback with swords. People would try to capture one and drag him off to the Army. That began right around the time that we realized something was going on. But the men on horseback have left. It turned out they were somewhat cumbersome. It was easy for people to pull them off so the horses were just wandering around alone and the riders were turning them over to the Army.

The Army is just kind of handing them off. It doesn't look like they're being detained. I would see one, and then a half an hour later, I would see the same one with the same wound somewhere else. They're not letting any ambulances inside the square.

JK: Can you speak to the reports that the Egyptian Museum has been firebombed?

MI: Yes. They were throwing Molotov cocktails at the lawn. But it wasn't enough. There's definitely smoke rising from the lawn, though. 

JK: What do you believe is going to happen next?

MI: A lot of what I'm hearing from people coming out from the inside is that it's just a bloodbath, a straight-up street fight. This is a turning point. More than one person has described it as a civil war.

I would add, and I don't like to hype these things, that those on the pro-Mubarak side are chanting Islamic slogans. Throughout the day, we've been hearing that Friday is supposed to be what everyone is calling a "day of jihad" that both sides are gearing up for. Both sides are gearing up for a street fight on Friday. Definitely the mood has changed.

Maryam also sent us a dispatch a few days ago as Cairo's Internet blackout went into effect. We hope to shortly post a series of interviews she has conducted with leaders of the anti-Mubarak movement. 

MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images