At Tahrir Square, Egyptian army feints and jabs

February 6, 2011

CAIRO - An awkward, uncertain coexistence between protesters and the Egyptian military is playing out in Tahrir Square, where early hopes that soldiers were sympathetic to the demonstrators and might come over to their side have given way to increasing signs that the army just wants the people to go home.

On each of the past few days, the army has made its presence felt by different, nonviolent means. The object seems to be to discourage the opposition forces who want to keep possession of the central plaza, the iconic center of the 13-day struggle for control of the Egyptian capital.

"The military doesn't want us here anymore," said Tamer Mustafa, 30, a teacher who was on the square Sunday. Officers, he said, have spoken with members of the crowd, telling them they're causing "fitna," or division between Muslims, and that this is not good.

For a short time Sunday morning, soldiers prohibited anyone from bringing food into Tahrir Square, the scene of nearly two weeks of anti-government protests, though people were still allowed to pass the checkpoints.

A sit-down protest began on the street at the foot of the Qasr Al Nil bridge, which feeds traffic across the Nile and, on a normal day, into the square. Men who had brought supplies to be given out to the crowds in the square sat on the pavement, waving their plastic shopping bags in the air.

"Sit in, sit in, until they let the food in!" they chanted.

They called on everyone who was heading to the square to join them, outside the perimeter, in this new protest. The soldiers, most wearing riot helmets but with the visors up, were impassive.

"Why is the military preventing us from bringing food inside?" asked Hasan Afifi, who had arrived with a bag of sandwiches, fava beans and falafel. "Is the military fighting us? Do they want us to die of starvation? The role of the military is to protect us, not to kill us."

The crowd at this secondary protest grew until it numbered several hundred angry, chanting people. Similar scenes were enacted at other entrances to the square, threatening to spread the unrest outward into the city. After an hour, with no explanation, the army relented, and food was again allowed in.

The mini-blockade was the latest in a series of maneuvers by the army. On Saturday, military tanks attempted to enter the square but were blocked by demonstrators.

Atef Mohamed Habib, who was carrying a large bundle of blankets on his head and was allowed to pass into the square unmolested Sunday, surmised that the army was making a show of trying to suppress the demonstration to appease the government.

"It's to present an image," he said.

The army's increasingly visible presence has clearly made the area around the square much safer. The stone-throwing battles with protesters sympathetic to President Hosni Mubarak have stopped. Now, stones gathered as ammunition have been set out on the square to spell messages. One said: "We are the people of Facebook."

But the military escalation also is a sign that the army is much more in control. It has set up checkpoints at every entrance to the square - in addition to those run by the demonstrators themselves - and its tanks are mostly arranged with their barrels facing the protest. On the side streets leading to the square, some intersections have been blocked off with coils of barbed wire. Heavy traffic barriers are in place, as well as sand-bagged emplacements.

The demonstrators are aware that the army is the one institution in Egypt that commands universal respect and that could tip this struggle one way or the other. They are also aware that Mubarak, who continues to hang on, thereby continues to remain the commander-in-chief, and that an outright mutiny by the generals is unlikely.

"Only the steadfastness of the youth here, and also external pressure, has forced the military to be neutral," said Mustafa, the teacher. "They may not be with us, but we definitely don't want them against us."

The protesters have decorated the military vehicles with graffiti: "God is Great." "The Egyptian revolution will not be thwarted."

"Down with Mubarak the butcher."

On an armored personnel carrier, a passerby had scrawled a line from a Tunisian poem: "If, someday, people want to live, destiny will have to give way."

The soldiers sit topside, forbidden to talk with the crowds around them. No one at Tahrir Square knows how much further the army might try to tighten control in the next few days.

"The army is afraid of the regime," said Magdy Gharib Mahmoud, 25. "If the regime is shaken up a little bit, then the army will be on our side. But right now the military must be feeling that the regime is still strong."

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