Egyptian soldiers clashed Monday with protesters encamped in Tahrir Square, tearing down tents the activists have used to stage a weeks-long sit in.

Hundreds of protesters have been sleeping in the square — epicenter of the 18-day uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak — since July 8.

They are calling for quicker trials for Mubarak-era officials involved in the deaths of nearly 900 Egyptians during the uprising, and protesting the slow pace of change since the military council took control of the country on Feb. 11.

On Monday, the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, television footage showed military police in riot gear throwing sticks and pushing protesters as demonstrators lobbed stones in return. One soldier could be seen raising his middle finger to the protesters and another was shown pointing a rifle.

People who supported the military’s eviction ripped down banners, as a woman allied with the protesters screamed, “They’re an army of thugs.”

Activists vowed to stage a march to condemn the forced eviction of the demonstrators. Armored vehicles and tanks drove into the square and surrounded the area as angry protesters chanted for the fall of the remnants of Mubarak’s regime. Traffic crawled to a halt.

“Where are the revolution’s heroes?” asked Islam Ramadan, 20. “Why haven’t they come to save” the revolution?

It took one hour for military police officers to take over the square, sitting where protesters had been just a short time earlier. Around them, torn posters were strewn on the ground, along with spent casings from rubber bullets.

The canopy tents that had house the demonstrators were gone.

When asked why the military was removing protesters from the square, a soldier answered, “We’re clearing out the trash.”A few business owners around the square cheered the military’s forceful move.

The action was the first direct confrontation between protesters and the military since the start of the sit-in more than three weeks ago.

Protesters have grown increasingly vocal in their criticism of the military leadership for failing to purge government institutions of Mubarak loyalists, and activists have expressed concern that the tension would turn into conflict.

In July, demonstrators marching to the defense ministry to condemn perceived failures of the military leadership were attacked by army supporters. More than 150 people were injured.

The military has accused protest leaders of taking foreign money and trying to destabilize the nation, painting them as thugs and foreign agents in statements, through state media and during television interviews.

Protesters, in turn, have objected strenuously as Egypt’s new rulers have continued to use military trials for civilians, and other Mubarak-era tactics, to repress dissent.

On Sunday, several groups chose to withdraw from the Tahrir Square sit-in during Ramadan, but they expressed continued support for those who wanted to remain. On Monday night, just before most Egyptians would break their daily Ramadan fast, the square was empty of demonstrators.

Hassieb is a special correspondent.