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The morning and early afternoon were marked by a tense calm in the area around Midan Tahrir, central Cairo. Several M14 tanks and smaller armoured vehicles blocked the entrances to the square. Whereas yesterday saw the crowd greeting the young military recruits with cheers, bottles of water, handshakes, hugs and photographs, Sunday morning was sombre.
After protesters forced the police and security forces from most of central Cairo, the military – which pulled into the capital’s main intersection just after midnight on the 29th – had been limited to relatively passive containment action, protecting activists from marauding remnants of the regime’s policing apparatus.
Army units initially basked in the admiration of the crowds yet seemed unsure of their exact role. Some formed rough lines. Others sat grinning and exhausted in small groups, rifles with fixed-bayonets leaning casually on their shoulders, peeling fresh fruit the crowds had given them.
But when snipers in the Ministry of the Interior close to the square began targeting young Egyptians with head and body shots, military vehicles moved forward to shield them. Sharp pings of sniper fire ricocheted around the top floors of Cairo’s decrepit downtown.
Harsh tear gas still blew through the streets as ordinary people looked for increasingly scarce food and drink. Many of Egypt’s newspapers had printed thin, excitable new editions and vendors sold them on the streets around Garden City.
A senior military figure joined protesters atop a tank daubed with anti-Mubarak and anti-regime graffiti. Over loudspeakers the army assured the people it was with them but asked them to temper their anger.
It was fruitless. Mubarak’s dismissive TV address late Friday night and the protesters’ seeming dominance of the square had prompted yet more to gather on Saturday. The revolt may have been spurred by young men but several generations, men and women, were now on the streets.
“This is my first day of protests,” said Nehad Hafez, an impassioned young woman, in fluent English. “Mubarak’s speech last night was very disappointing and frustrating. He insisted he will stay but he underestimated the power of the people. He is just an employee of the country. This is not about unemployment, it’s about corruption, restrictions and oppression.”
Moustafa el-Kady, a dapper protester in his fifties, gestured to the still-burning headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. “They must tear this building down. It means game over. There’s just time for him to leave so he makes trouble to cover himself.”
The streets of the centre were a scene of carnage after Friday. Burnt-out prison trucks and cars sat smoking near disembowelled cash machines and smashed open diamond stores. The ground was littered with shattered glass and bullet casings. One woman claimed to have found tear gas cannister with use before dates of mid-2008. This may have accounted for the severe headaches and breathing difficulties many reported.
Saturday night brought more reports of looting and torching of property. Protesters and sympathisers put it down to Mubarak’s goons, the ubiquitous security squads and plain clothes thugs who were now roaming the streets.
A group of young protesters managed to parry an assault on Cairo’s famous antiquities museum. Looters only damaged a few display cases, trying to dislodge a mummy’s head. “I’m proud of the boys who defended the museum. We are not stupid, we know to protect our history,” said one bystander.
The situation forced many neighbourhoods to form improvised militias. Ahad Sanad, resident of Maadi, a Cairo suburb that contains many western embassies was part of a group equipped with knives, bats, sticks and a single police pistol. They caught 28 armed looters and turned them over to military police. With prisons lying open, the army is responsible for holding suspected criminals.
“The people are good, we don’t need the police to protect us,” says Ahad. “We had 70 year old men armed with sticks and then we had 17 year old boys alongside. Everyone who lives together is fighting to protect our lives and homes. Mubarak pulls the police out so there will be chaos and people will beg him to stay in place and send them back in.”
Ahad Sanad was among many who raced for Cairo’s international airport, yesterday a scene of mass panic as Egyptians and foreigners desperately searched for available tickets. There was fighting in the departures hall and security scanners were hopelessly overloaded. “There’s no government, there are only street gangs,” says Ahad’s wife, now travelling to their part-time home in Dubai.
At 8am on Sunday morning a hundreds-strong group of protesters erupted in cheers, marking the end of the supposed military curfew which began at 4pm the previous day. Through the night they’d built small fires for warmth on traffic islands and periodically formed marching lines, carrying the bodies of those killed the previous day.
At least two were slaughtered outside this reporter’s hotel on Friday by police shooting ball-bearings and rubber bullets at point blank range. Nine floors below, we watched a young man slump in his friend’s arms, the life draining from him. State violence on the 28th was indiscriminate and utterly disproportional.
Media estimates of around 100 protester deaths in Cairo are surely dwarfed by the real numbers. A Greek photojournalist told me of his visit to a central hospital where a doctor urged him to photograph dozens of dead stacked on gurneys.
By 9am yesterday, stress was starting to show with the weary group remaining in Tahrir square, as tussles broke out between a few and soldiers riding an armoured vehicle. Three live rounds shot in the air dispersed the crowd. Civilians formed small lines in front of army positions to ease tensions.
More protesters entered as the morning wore on amid rumours that the rump security forces and snipers in the Ministry of the Interior had fled. As more civilians arrived, tensions grew. Foreign embassies were taking note, starting crisis hotlines and beginning to advise their citizens make speedy exits.
By early afternoon, the periodic buzz of military helicopters was replaced by circling air force jets. Tanks on the ground were shifting position. Opposition candidate Mohamed el-Baradei was on his way.
News also came of a prison break that had freed dozens of Muslim Brotherhood members. Army security tightened and those entering the square were subjected to baggage searches. One youth concealing a dagger in his bag was jumped on and bundled inside an armoured vehicle.
“The people and the army, together”, was the refrain of the day before. That will be put to the test in the coming days.
See Egypt’s uprising – battlefield central Cairo to view images depicting the evolution of the situation.