by Michael Gunn, Middle East reporter
It was just after the 2am curfew and Samir was crouched against Tahrir’s central traffic island, eyeing the hundreds-strong crowd still milling about on the rubble-strewn square. Weary and on edge he hitched his chequered scarf up against the chill and sighed. “I’m getting really bored with this place.”
Two months after Mubarak’s ousting, the revolutionaries were back at the barricades. Bundles of barbed wire blocked the entrances to Cairo’s main intersection and a burnt-out bus loaded with garbage bags flanked the Square’s main government building. Volunteer checkpoints requested ID, and patted down visitors, while look-outs on the fringes began clanging in a frenzy on the metal railings to signal suspected threats.
The 25 January revolution was fighting the latest and most dangerous attempt to roll it back. The army, so-called honest broker in Egypt’s supposed march to democracy, was increasingly being seen as part of the problem – even, some said, the enemy itself.
Protesters congregated on Tahrir in their tens of thousands on Friday, the largest numbers since mid-February, angered at the slow pace of justice and demanding Mubarak’s arrest and trial for corruption. A new chant was gaining ground – ‘The people want the fall of the Field Marshal’. It was aimed at Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, longtime Mubarak associate and a symbol of the old guard that many believe is quietly stifling the democratic dream.
Up to a dozen army officers had joined the demonstration, taking to the Tahrir stage alongside the usual gallery of pro-democracy speakers. It was a brave – some say foolhardy – move, as the ex-officers, defying an explicit threat from the military the day before, bedded down in the protest camp with only a ring of unarmed youth for protection.
Early on Saturday morning, army forces pressed into Tahrir from the Egyptian Museum to the north and the old American University campus to the south. After a tense stand-off they launched a brutal raid, helmeted army police surging forward beating and dispersing protesters with batons and tasers. Others opened fire with live ammo, shooting at waist-height. Onlookers in the buildings above captured much of the attack on cameraphone.
Between 2am and 5am rifle shots and automatic gunfire ripped and echoed around downtown as the army, military police, and, according to some, resurgent elements of the state security apparatus, chased unarmed protesters through the streets. The army withdrew by 6am and smaller crowds edged back into Tahrir to count the cost of the night’s violence.
Latest figures suggest at least two were killed, more than 70 were injured, and over 40 arrests made. Eyewitnesses claimed the camping officers were specifically targeted by special forces, saying at least one officer was beaten to death on the square.
A statement from the Military Council on Saturday afternoon denied using live ammunition and claimed the clash was started by paid thugs and elements of Mubarak’s old party, the NDP. Doctors and eye-witnesses told a different story.
Twenty-four hours later a smaller but determined crowd remained on Tahrir, almost daring the military for a repeat performance. Several protesters sported fresh wounds: bruised faces, lashed arms. A teenager on crutches whipped past like a gawky kangaroo, stirring a pile of flattened cardboard laid to conceal a dark, sticky metre-long patch of day-old blood.
A handful of bullet holes pockmarked the green guard-railings at Tahrir’s southern edge.The mood was tense, bitter, and defiant, but as the clock ticked down there was no further crack-down.
By mid-morning those that remained were divided. Stay on, press their demands, and start to alienate an already weary public? Or regroup for the next battle? “There’s more to Egypt than Tahrir,” one activist put it on Twitter. “Every hour we spend there is another wasted preparing for the elections.”
But some assume the game is rigged anyway. The rank-and-file of the Egyptian army may sympathise with the revolution but many believe the upper echelons have a vested interest in the old system, not least a much-rumoured stake in the economy via investments in manufacturing and infrastructure. In this view, the revolution – and the term is still disputed – meant the handover of power from one aged military man to another. Much of the rest is still in flux and tearing down a vast nexus of military, security and industrial interests may take years.
“It’s not even 30 years of Mubarak that have to change – it’s 50 years of army involvement in everything from the time of Nasser,” said Mohammed, a subdued young man watching the more raucous protesters in Tahrir on Sunday.
The weekend’s attack was only the latest event casting doubt on the idea of unity between the Egyptian army and the people – a notion that seems more and more a necessary illusion to keep this already divided country from total fragmentation.
Late February saw a similar nightime raid on a smaller Tahrir sit-in, with the army apologising on its Facebook page. Shortly afterwards, a communique banned protests, inevitably prompting a surge to Tahrir and mass protests again the ban.
Military justice has been harsh in dealing with its critics. Maikel Nabil, an activist interviewed in February by Newsnet Scotland about his experiences of army torture, was this week sentenced to three years imprisonment for ‘insulting the military’. His crime: a blog post titled ‘The army and the people were never one hand’.
And yet the tide of opinion may be turning against the demonstrators. With the police not yet returned to full duties and state security dissolved, crime-rates are climbing, leaving many citizens weary for Mubarak-era stability.
The economy too is tanking and living costs spiralling, all fuelling public frustration at the protesters’ insistence on further disruption. Over the last few days individuals have been seen haranguing and pleading with protesters on Tahrir asking for a return to normality.
Even the Brotherhood, whose youth wing played a key role in the revolution, have called for protesters to back down, sparking rumours that it has, once again, come to a deal with Egypt’s rulers to guarantee its place at the political table. (If true, it may only go so far. Military figures have also been quoted as saying they would guard against an Islamic push for government, suggesting the military may follow the Mubarak trick of using the threat of Islamism to stifle dissent).
Waiting in the wings are the ‘baltigiya’, the hired musclemen of the old regime who caused mayhem posing as pro-Mubarak protesters in early February. Recent reports in the Egyptian press claimed ‘hundreds of thugs’ have been paid and are poised to cause destruction if the old guard feels further pressure. Some claimed they had a role in Saturday’s clashes – numerous civilian vehicles and men in plainclothes were certainly apparent behind army lines on Talaat Harb square long after curfew.
Samir may be getting bored, but he probably hasn’t spent his last night on Tahrir.