Gunfire in Cairo as Mubarak Allies Battle Protesters

Gunfire erupted in Cairo’s Tahrir Square early today as supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak battled with demonstrators demanding an immediate end to his 30-year rule.

Five people have been killed in the clashes and Molotov cocktails were thrown in the square, Al Jazeera television reported, showing footage of bodies being pulled on the street. The Doha, Qatar-based network also showed footage of soldiers detaining people.

The political turmoil that has engulfed the Middle East continued to spread, with thousands of pro- and anti-government protestors gathering in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. Opposition groups vowed to go ahead with a “Day of Rage” after Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said yesterday he will step down when his term ends in 2013.

Mubarak loyalists yesterday rode horses and camels into Tahrir Square, the epicenter of anti-government protests since Jan. 25, swinging whips and clubs. The two sides hurled rocks, bottles and concrete chunks, and some pro-government marchers carried machetes. Egyptian soldiers didn’t intervene except to extinguish fires and there were no uniformed police present.

Transition to Democracy

More than 800 people were injured, according to state television, in battles between government allies and demonstrators who reject Mubarak’s plan to remain in power until September elections. President Barack Obama has said the transition to democracy should start immediately.

Oil rose for a second day on concern the protests may threaten exports from the Middle East, adding 0.6 percent to $91.39 a barrel at 7 a.m. in London.

State television blamed the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic militant group Hamas, an allegation at odds with the sequence of events that began with organized crowds of men carrying pro-regime banners confronting anti-Mubarak demonstrators. CNN reported that the first Molotov cocktails were thrown from within the ranks of pro-government forces.

Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition leader and former United Nations diplomat, told the BBC the army should end the unrest incited by a “criminal regime” that “has to go immediately.”

“I think the military would step in before there was a civil war,” said Barak Seener, a research fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies. “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.”

Without Delay

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs yesterday said it is “imperative” that Egyptians see a government transition begin without delay. This is “not some process that starts a week, a month or several months from now,” he said.

A transitional government in Egypt is one of the scenarios being considered, a White House official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman, who has been Mubarak’s intelligence chief, issued a statement yesterday calling on demonstrators to go home so that order may be restored and transition talks can progress. It wasn’t clear from his statement whether he was setting a pre-condition for negotiations with opposition leaders.

Egypt credit-default swaps rose yesterday, reversing a decline, as the clashes intensified. Bonds dropped and global depository receipts of Orascom Telecom Holding SAE fell as the country’s bourse remained shut.

Bond Yields Rise

The cost of protecting Egyptian debt against default for five years with credit-default swaps widened 40 basis points, or 0.40 percentage points, to 382 yesterday, according to prices from CMA, a data provider in London. The yield on the North African nation’s 5.75 percent debt due in April 2020 increased 13 basis points to 6.63 percent at 4:06 p.m. yesterday in London, according to Bloomberg composite prices.

Dubai’s benchmark index today fell 0.93 percent at 10:10 a.m. The Bloomberg GCC 200 Index of Gulf shares climbed 1.8 percent yesterday, the most since May. Most Gulf trading closed before the new Cairo clashes.

Egypt’s stock market plans to reopen on Feb. 7 provided that banks are functioning normally, the state-run Middle East News agency reported today, citing the bourse’s chief, Khaled Seyam. Egypt’s benchmark EGX 30 Index plunged 11 percent when it last traded on Jan. 27, the most since October 2008.

Probe Into Violence

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke yesterday with Suleiman and urged him to conduct a probe into violence, said State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley. Former Ambassador Frank Wisner was returning to the U.S. after telling Mubarak on Jan. 31 that his time in office was coming to an end, Crowley said.

“The protests won’t stop until he leaves or is ousted,” said Rime Allaf, associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at London’s Chatham House. “The opposition is clear that they want the fall of the regime, not just Mubarak.”

Today’s events in Egypt and Yemen are the latest in a series of uprisings since Tunisia ousted longtime ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali last month. Jordan’s King Abdullah sacked his prime minister on Feb. 1 and protestors in Algeria have been killed in clashes with security forces.

“The Middle East may never be what it was pre the last 10 days, and what it will be is yet to be determined,” White House Chief of Staff William Daley said in an interview yesterday.

Back to Normal

Mubarak, 82, indicated Feb. 1 that the government would take steps to return the country to normal, including dispatching police to apprehend those responsible for arson during the protests.

Egypt “faces a choice between chaos and stability,” Mubarak said in a televised address in which he promised to step down after elections due in September.

Service providers including units of Vodafone Group Plc “returned to the Internet” at 11:29 a.m. in Cairo, Web security firm Renesys said in a blog post. Communications had been cut off during the protests. Some banks’ automated teller machines are working, and 24,000 government employees received their salaries, state television said.

All Egyptian ports are closed because of a lack of staff, though the Suez Canal is operating as normal, Inchcape Shipping Services reported yesterday.

“Everyone is watching television and the market is moving on the most recent pictures from Egypt,” said Carl Larry, president of Oil Outlooks & Opinions LLC in Houston. “The price of crude will trend higher until we get some kind of resolution to the crisis.”

Egypt received about $1.5 billion in U.S. assistance last year. It has been one of the biggest recipients of U.S. aid since 1979, after Egypt signed a U.S.-brokered peace treaty with Israel. Mubarak has backed efforts to encourage Arab acceptance of the Jewish state, oppose Iran’s nuclear program and isolate Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.