At Tahrir Square, Egyptian army feints and jabs

The Egyptian Army has not yet taken sides or intervened to stop violent protest, but that may soon change. (Feb. 2)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 6, 2011; 4:27 PM

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.

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