Egypt divided after a week of violence

December 23, 2011

The plan was hatched among activists trying to counter the narrative disseminated by state television and Egypt’s ruling generals that paints anti-military demonstrators here as thugs and dupes.

The group left Tahrir Square, the symbolic center of the country’s winter uprising and now the center of a revolt against the military council, and set up screens and projectors in several parts of the capital to show videos depicting military brutality to Egyptians who had not seen them online this week.

But rather than proving an exercise in enlightenment, the ploy backfired in some neighborhoods, exposing an apparently widening rift between Egyptians who support the military chiefs and those who want them ousted.

In at least one place, the activists were driven away by residents sympathetic to the military’s assertions that the protesters are products of a foreign plot and are being paid to destabilize Egypt. In the affluent eastern suburb of Heliopolis, Abdul Hai Galal, 38, blocked their path into Triumph Square, where he works at a flower shop. Others joined him and forced the activists out, destroying their screen.

“Let them stay in Tahrir and protest there. We don’t need
chaos here,” he said. “We don’t need burning buildings and tents.”

In recent weeks, Egypt appears to have grown more divided, with those supporting the ruling generals increasingly taking to the streets to confront those who have long been calling for them to go. Many Egyptians have also responded to calls by the military council to report those they suspect of subversion. The resulting tension could end in civil conflict, analysts say.

“It’s this charged, always-
on-the-edge-of-violence feeling, combined with a license to use violence against thugs and bad protesters and foreign hands, that is dangerous,” said Heba Morayef, an Egypt researcher for Human Rights Watch.

The split was apparent Friday in central Cairo, as dueling protests unfolded a few miles apart.

Tens of thousands of Egyptians flooded into Tahrir Square holding up pictures of unarmed women being dragged through the streets by soldiers. Others carried portraits of a cleric, a young doctor and others among at least 17 people killed in clashes that started last week after the military tried to break up a sit-in outside the cabinet building. Many of those killed reportedly died of gunshot wounds.

Just a few miles away, in the Abbasiya district, thousands of pro-military demonstrators waved flags, accused foreign reporters of manipulating images of military abuse and put up a large sign asking Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who criticized excessive use of force in Egypt this week, to stay out of Egypt’s business and watch her husband’s wandering eye.

Many journalists reported being driven out of the area and in some cases attacked amid accusations that they were helping to destroy Egypt.

Rasha Azb, a longtime activist, said she wasn’t sure whether a projector and a few screens were enough to counter state television, the mouthpiece of the ruling generals, and to revive the “mood and spirit” of the revolution. “If our numbers remain so little, we’ll be exterminated,” she said.

Many Egyptians said they believe that the videos of soldiers firing on unarmed protesters and beating them with truncheons have been fabricated and that the protesters are undermining Egypt’s image and economy.

Fatma Riad, a lawyer, has launched Facebook pages promoting those views and visited Tahrir Square to try to persuade protesters there to go home.

“They don’t understand that it’s a matter of national security, and that the military is doing its best to run the country at this difficult time until we have a constitution,” she said.

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