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If the week-long Tahrir square protests are a revolution, Wednesday witnessed the start of the counterrevolution, with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak digging in his heels and defying the wishes of U.S. President Barack Obama and European leaders.

A speedy and peaceful outcome now remains very much in doubt after supporters of Mr. Mubarak struck back against those who are trying to drive him from office. In a robust and even violent campaign, these new arrivals on the scene have quickly shown they are a force to be reckoned with.

Rallies of ordinary citizens supporting the President sprang up in several parts of Cairo and around the country, even as thousands of other pro-Mubarak supporters fought a pitched battle with anti-Mubarak protesters at Tahrir Square.

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That battle continued into the night, with pro-Mubarak thugs invading the square throwing rocks and gasoline bombs while Egyptian forces surrounding the area stood by. Doctors treating the injured on the scene said that at least three people died and several hundred were injured, mostly with head wounds from rocks and other projectiles.

The assault on Tahrir overshadowed the fact that the bulk of the pro-Mubarak protests were non-violent and showed the genuine love many Egyptian people feel for their President. They also demonstrated contempt for the Tahrir protesters and showed how insulted they feel at how their leader has been treated.

"I wept," Sarah Ali, 28, said at the largest rally of tens of thousands of people in the upscale modern neighbourhood of Mohandessin on the west bank of the Nile. "When Mr. Mubarak described all the things he did to fight for this country," she said, referring to Mr. Mubarak's speech the night before, "and then they told him to get out of the country, I cried and was very angry."

"He is our President; he doesn't deserve this."

"The President met all the protesters' demands," said Yasser Mohammed, 40. "He said he wouldn't run again for president, that he'd change the constitution and bring in reforms."

"What more do they want?"

Getting the masses out to demonstrate was just part of the Mubarak efforts to counter the Tahrir protests. At mosques across the city, the noontime sermons by government-paid imams delivered pro-Mubarak messages, and many were echoed through speakers in various neighbourhoods.

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And the Foreign Ministry conveyed Mr. Mubarak's new attitude in a blunt rejection of the calls from Mr. Obama and some European leaders to immediately begin the transition to a new government. These interventions are "aimed to incite the internal situation" in Egypt, the statement said.

Mr. Mubarak's Tuesday night speech appears to have been a turning point in this crisis.

His insistence on finishing his term - which ends late this year - and to die on Egyptian soil, touched a nerve with many Egyptians. They don't see the need to have him resign immediately.

But the opposition in Tahrir Square loudly rejected Mr. Mubarak's appeal, as did the provisional leadership of the opposition, who said they would not negotiate with the regime until Mr. Mubarak leaves office.

That rejection appears to have contributed to the size and ferocity of Wednesday's pro-Mubarak activities.

"They overplayed their hand," a senior Western diplomat said. "The victory was theirs but they wanted an unconditional surrender." And after that speech, such a surrender wasn't in the cards, he said.

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"They saw the precedent in Tunis, where the opposition refused to compromise. And they got greedy," the diplomat said. "It was a mistake."

"Most Egyptians think the guy deserves to go in dignity."

Unfortunately for the pro-Mubarak people, he pointed out, "their vicious attack on the Tahrir protesters has once again made the protesters sympathetic figures."

The question now is whether the anti-Mubarak protesters can survive the counter-attack.

There are now grave doubts about the opposition's ability to get out the number of demonstrators they'll need to keep pressure on the regime. There are calls for another big demonstration Friday. But "people are going to be afraid," the diplomat said.

In that event, the opposition may have to agree to immediate negotiations with the regime on political reforms and hope that pressure on Mr. Mubarak from Washington and elsewhere will provide some of the leverage the opposition will need.

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"The next few hours will determine a lot," the diplomat said, referring to the possibility of extensive overnight fighting. "I expect it to be bad. There are a lot of weapons out there."

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