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Egyptian soldiers clear protesters from Tahrir Square, as pockets of tension bubble up in Cairo

By Craig Whitlock, Leila Fadel and Samuel Sockol
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 13, 2011; 9:37 AM

CAIRO - Soldiers evicted demonstrators from parts of Tahrir Square on Sunday as they tried to restore a measure of normalcy to the Egyptian capital. But tensions flared elsewhere as police and civil servants took advantage of the country's revolutionary tumult to press their own demands for change.

Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq presided over the Egyptian government's first cabinet meeting since President Hosni Mubarak's abrupt resignation Friday. "Our concern now in the cabinet is security, to bring security back to the Egyptian citizen," he said at a press conference.

The Egyptian military has been in control of the country since Mubarak's departure. But military chiefs have ordered the civilian government to remain in place in a caretaker role until a new government is formed.

As daylight broke, soldiers dismantled tents from the makeshift camps that have occupied Tahrir Square since Jan. 25, when protests erupted in Cairo. Some weary demonstrators evacuated voluntarily. Others stood their ground or scuffled with soldiers, though both sides generally refrained from brute force.

By mid-morning, the military had re-opened the square to traffic for the first time in three weeks. But an uneasy mood persisted. A few thousand protesters flocked back to the square as the day unfolded, saying they were not ready to give up.

"We want to stay here until they fulfill our demands," said Mahmoud Sharif, 27, who had 10 days and nights in Tahrir.

Meanwhile, pockets of disorder erupted elsewhere. An aggressive crowd of several hundred police officers - who have largely been on strike or absent from the streets for the past 10 days - marched through the streets to demand pay raises and other benefits.

Many Egyptians harbor deep suspicions about the police, who roughly tried to suppress anti-Mubarak protests in the days prior to his resignation. In contrast, Egyptians have expressed gratitude to the armed forces for standing by and not interfering with the revolution.

The police demonstrators, clad mostly in black leather jackets, swept past a handful of military checkpoints to reach Tahrir Square. There, they stood nose-to-nose with pro-democracy protesters, who seemed skeptical of their intentions.

Chanting, "The police and the people are one," the officers avoided a confrontation and marched a few blocks to the Egyptian Interior Ministry building, where they were finally halted by an army barricade and a three-star general standing athwart a tank.

The police, who report to the ministry, laid out demands for better pay and health care. But they also seemed intent on trying to repair their public image as pro-Mubarak bullies. "We are not thieves," they chanted.

"We have been accused of running away from the city [during the revolution], but we didn't run away," said Mohammed Said, a 15-year veteran of the Cairo police force. He said he earned only 500 Egyptian pounds a month, or about $85, and wanted more.

Eventually, Interior Minister Mahmoud Wagdy emerged from the hulking building to listen to the complaints in person. He was appointed by Mubarak last week, just prior to the president's resignation, as part of a shake-up of senior government leaders.

"Give me a chance," he implored the police.

With Mubarak gone, other civil servants also saw an opportunity to voice their grievances.

A few blocks from the Interior Ministry, a couple hundred protesters held a noisy sit-in at the front entrance of the Principal Bank for Development and Agricultural Credit. They were employees of the state-owned bank and also wanted a raise.

But they aimed most of their ire at the bank's chairman, whom they described as a profit-skimming Mubarak crony intent on ruining the bank's bottom line.

Ahmed Mahmoud, a bank manager involved in the protests, accused his bosses of trying to turn the bank into a money-losing operation. He said the hidden intent was to privatize its operations - and sell it for a song to politically connected investors, a common complaint during Mubarak's rule.

"Today is our ideal chance to make our voices heard," Mahmoud said. "You would never see these kind of protests before, not when we had a dictator."

The protests and strikes came a day after Egypt's military leaders sought to return calm and stability to a country still exhilarated by the first fruits of its revolution. But the armed forces also signaled there were limits to how much change they would tolerate, ignoring demonstrators' demands to dismantle Mubarak's institutional legacies.

In its fourth public statement in three days, the Supreme Military Council repeated its promise to oversee a transition to a "democratic and free" Egypt run by civilians. For the time being, however, the generals said they would keep the old order in place, allowing Mubarak's government to stay on in a caretaker role.

They also said Egypt would honor its international treaties, including its peace accord with Israel.

The council statement said the military wanted to meet "the legitimate demands of the people" but was silent on whom, if anyone, it would consult as it maps out Egypt's future.

Several Egyptian intellectuals who had tried to mediate between Mubarak and the protesters during the 18-day uprising said they have been kept in the dark and are worried.

"Everything is in the hands of the military. They issue one statement after another, but they are very brief," said Nabil el-Arabi, a former diplomat and judge at the International Court of Justice. "There's nothing else. Nobody knows."

While the military chiefs were focused on preserving order, Egypt's revolutionaries had further goals in mind. Many demonstrators said they were grateful for the military's decision not to crack down against the protests but doubted the generals would be so permissive about sharing power.

"This is a revolution, not a half-revolution," said Ahmed Abed Ghafur, 36, a computer engineer from Mansoura, a city about 100 miles north of Cairo, who had camped out in Tahrir Square for four straight days. "We need a timetable for elections. We need an interim government. We need a committee for a new constitution. Once we get all that, then we can leave the square."

In their own statement, protest organizers listed several other demands Saturday, including the release of political prisoners, the repeal of Egypt's 30-year-old state-of-emergency decree and the dissolution of Mubarak's parliament.

But there was disagreement over how long they should maintain their vigil in Tahrir Square, along the east bank of the Nile in central Cairo. Some insisted they would stay, others said they had made their point and would go home, while still others favored a weekly resumption of the protests every Friday.

"We need to give people a break, but we also need to follow up," said Ahmed Nagib, 33, a higher-education administrator and spokesman for the loose coalition of protest leaders. "We also need to spend time to further develop the leadership of our revolution."

Revolutionary pride

Uncertainty over the future, however, was overshadowed for the moment by Egyptians' immense pride at what their revolution had wrought and the fact that they had done it by embracing peaceful tactics.

Tens of thousands returned to Tahrir Square on Saturday to drink in their newfound freedom. People sang patriotic songs and marveled at the scene. Parents snapped photographs of their children perched on tanks next to soldiers. Cartoonists plastered the storefront of a condemned KFC franchise with dozens of hand-sketched posters, virtually all of them mocking Mubarak, their once-feared former leader.

For many Egyptians, upholding the square's image as a sacred place became paramount. Paint crews daubed fresh black-and-white stripes on street curbs. Small armies of volunteers fanned out across Tahrir and transformed it into the cleanest site in the city.

The White House said in a statement that President Obama "welcomed the historic change that has been made by the Egyptian people, and reaffirmed his admiration for their efforts."

While most of the country celebrated, a few people made themselves scarce.

Mubarak was reportedly holed up in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, though there was no official confirmation. State television reported that the military had banned a handful of former government officials from traveling abroad; several are under investigation by prosecutors on corruption allegations.

Popular opinion was mixed on whether authorities should prosecute Mubarak, as well. The formal list of demands released by protest organizers Saturday took no position on his fate.

Some Egyptians said they had no desire to seek retribution against the former president. But many said that, at a minimum, he and his family should be investigated on the widely held suspicion that they pocketed immense wealth during his three decades in power.

"The money he stole has to be returned to the people," said Safwat Higazi, a Muslim cleric active in the demonstrations.

The prospect of that appeared unlikely, however, as long as Mubarak's former allies in the military and government remain in charge of the country.

Ibrahim al-Moallem, a well-known publishing executive from Cairo, said he was "very worried that there must be some remaining pockets from the old regime who will try to resist."

"They don't like what happened," he said. "It is now the new, modern, up-to-date young people against the old, out-of-touch, out-of-date and out-of-place people who can't understand what's going on. We have to be aware and cautious."

There was also evidence that some Mubarak loyalists were trying, with apparent sincerity, to come to grips with the new era.

Counterdemonstrations

Rida Rifai, a member of Mubarak's National Democratic Party from Cairo, marched in counter-demonstrations to show support for the president last week. He said his wife and children burst out crying when Mubarak's resignation was announced on television Friday.

On Saturday, however, Rifai made his way to Tahrir Square, where he said, "I can see a new dawn over Egypt." He said he hoped a new government could do a better job of improving the health, education and economic well-being for ordinary Egyptians.

In hindsight, he said, the National Democratic Party's biggest mistake was to rig legislative elections last year. He also bemoaned the heavy-handedness of Mubarak's secret police, who are blamed for the deaths of an estimated 300 people after the protests began Jan. 25.

"I am not afraid of this revolution," he said, acknowledging that he was at risk of losing his status in society, if not his job. "This is the will of the people, and of God."

whitlockc@washpost.com fadell@washpost.com

Staff writer Scott Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.

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