CAIRO – Thousands of Egyptians gathered on one of Cairo's main commercial boulevards Wednesday to cheer on President Hosni Mubarak in the first mass counter-demonstration after more than a week of calls for him to resign.
Many said Mubarak was Egypt's best chance for maintaining stability. They praised him for keeping the country at peace after a series of wars with Israel. Others said they felt personally humiliated by anti-Mubarak demonstrators jeering a man they saw as a symbol of the nation.
"I feel humiliated," said Mohammed Hussein, a 31-year-old factory worker. "He is the symbol of our country. When he is insulted, I am insulted."
The mood was angry and defiant but the protest was mostly peaceful, in contrast to the scene in Cairo's main square, where hundreds of young pro-government supporters attacked thousands demanding his ouster.
There were widespread accusations by anti-Mubarak protesters — and some evidence — of an official role in the gatherings supporting the president.
The pro-Mubarak crowds in Tahrir Square were mainly working-class men in their 20s and 30s. Many said they were street vendors and occasional laborers. A smaller number were professionals and shop owners. One group carried pieces of cardboard proclaiming them to be residents of the lower-income neighborhood of Dweika who had come out in support of Mubarak.
Deliveryman Emad Fathi, 35, said that he had not gone to work since the demonstrations began more than a week ago.
"I came here to tell these people to leave," he said. "The mosques were calling on people to go and support Mubarak."
Anti-Mubarak protesters at Tahrir Square accused the regime of paying their attackers — a tactic that security forces have used in the past. They also contended there were plainclothes police among their attackers, showing police ID badges they said were wrested off them.
A different scene presented itself on the central boulevard in the middle-class, heavily commercial neighborhood of Mohandiseen. Men in designer sunglasses and women with expensive hairdos joined government employees, including a few dozen nurses in white dresses and stockings who jumped and chanted, "We love you Mubarak!"
Younger men carried portraits of Mubarak and shouted in support. Children had their faces painted in the black, white and red colors of the Egyptian flag.
Pro-Mubarak protesters also gathered in other middle-class Cairo neighborhoods and the Nile Delta town of Luxor.
There was evidence of government involvement in the organization of the largest pro-Mubarak rally.
Over the last four days, at least two of Egypt's three main cell-phone service providers — MobiNil and Vodafone — have ceased transmitting virtually all text messages. The exceptions were at least two labeled as messages from the armed forces, which urged people to calm down and cooperate with the military to end the looting on the streets.
On Wednesday, one woman at the Mohandiseen rally showed an Associated Press reporter a Vodafone-transmitted text message from a group called Egypt Lovers that had urged her to attend.
In dozens of interviews, pro-Mubarak demonstrators in Mohandiseen expressed fears of chaos and violence engulfing the country. They said they feared for Egypt's plummeting currency and the shortages of food and gasoline gripping the country's major cities.
"We have been a stable country since the days of the Pharoahs. These demonstrators want to turn us into Somalia: poor and at war with itself," cried Samir Hamid, a 58-year-old war veteran. He said he recalled struggling to find bread in the pre-Mubarak years, and the wailing of women who lost their sons in wars against Israel.
Many in Mohandiseen said they were middle- and working-class people victimized by looters who had smashed up their shops and stolen their wares. They blamed the protesters for setting off the political uncertainty that led to the violence.
"Those youth in the square must go home," said 30-year-old butcher Ahmad Khalil. "Women in our homes are scared. We need peace," he said.
Many said they did not necessarily support the Egyptian president, but said the anti-Mubarak demonstrators should have been satisfied by his Tuesday night pledge to step down from power in seven months, after the country holds elections.
"It's not like Mubarak can rub Aladdin's lamp and pull out a genie who will fix everything," said Fatima al-Shal, 41, waving her hands that were bedecked with two heavily jeweled diamond rings. "We have to give them time to peacefully change power."
Gatherings of Mubarak supporters were generally more hostile to journalists and foreigners. Two Associated Press correspondents and several other journalists were roughed up in Mohandiseen and Tahrir Square.
State TV reported Tuesday night that foreigners were caught distributing anti-Mubarak leaflets, apparently trying to depict the movement as foreign-fueled.
Associated Press reporters Maggie Michael and Michael Weissenstein contributed to this article.