Tahrir Square Protesters Defy Army to Keep Egypt's Revolution Alive
By Chris McGreal in Cairo and Julian Borger
Sunday 13 February 2011
This time they asked Amr Shalkami nicely. But still he refused to go.
Shalkami has not left Cairo's Tahrir Square in the nearly three weeks since the beginning of the popular revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak on Friday.
He withstood an assault by police officers, beating and shooting as they tried to drive the protesters out. And he survived an attack by pro-Mubarak thugs on camels. On Sunday it was the army's turn to try to force him home.
The soldiers politely urged the pharmacist to pack up his things and go. The revolution was won, they said. There was nothing left to protest about. The new ruling military council had promised there would be democracy. Egypt must return to normal. Time to leave Tahrir Square.
Shalkami was having none of it.
"The rest of the revolution is not complete. Since the beginning of the revolution we have trusted our army but if we leave the square our revolution will die. We must keep the revolution alive so that we get the 100% freedom we are asking for," he said.
Shalkami is among a few hundred protesters who have remained in Tahrir Square to keep pressure on the military to meet the demands of the demonstrators, which went beyond Mubarak's removal.
The army has promised free elections in a few months and said it will lift the hated state of emergency when the security situation allows. It has also dismissed the widely discredited parliament elected last year in a tainted ballot.
For most Egyptians that would appear to be enough. But Shalkami is among those continuing to press for the installation of a civilian-led interim government and the immediate lifting of the emergency laws, which permit detention without trial. Instead the army has said a military council will rule by decree.
As troops moved in to Tahrir Square shortly after dawn, some of the protesters quietly packed up their belongings or helped with the cleanup. Others began chanting: "We're not leaving, we're not leaving."
Soldiers tore down the tents and the plastic makeshift shelters that hundreds of demonstrators have been living in for nearly three weeks. A hard core of activists stood their ground and chanted "peacefully, peacefully" as the military police tried to disperse them. The soldiers lashed out with sticks.
One of the remaining protesters, Adel el-Ghendy, a 54-year-old building contractor, said the soldiers had torn his shelter down but he would stay and sleep in the open.
"The soldiers told us to go. They removed our tents but we will stay. We want another government. We need civilian government. They want to steal our revolution," he said.
After the army tried to force the demonstrators out of the square, a call went out over loudspeakers and via text message and social media for people to return and make a stand. By the afternoon, a 1,000 or more had arrived. They were confronted by small groups of counter-demonstrators who told the protesters to accept the military's assurances and leave.
The demonstrators said about 30 were arrested and taken to a military compound at the nearby Egyptian museum where detained protesters have previously been beaten and interrogated.
All around Tahrir Square, life was getting back to normal. Banks, schools and colleges opened. Traffic was flowing again, although it ground to a halt on the main roundabout when the demonstrators launched a sit-down protest in front of the military police.
Then word came that the much-hated civil police were demonstrating outside the interior ministry for a pay rise, an unthinkable act of defiance just a few weeks ago.
Many Egyptians are prepared to take the army's word that it is committed to free elections. Some opposition leaders say the protest genie is out of the bottle and the military will not dare go against the will of the people.
But just to remind the army, a victory celebration is planned for Tahrir Square on Friday at which organisers of the protests plan to announce a "council of trustees" to – as Ronald Reagan put it in negotiating nuclear missile treaties with the Soviets – trust but verify.
Nothing Egypt's military council has done in its past suggests it has the capacity or inclination to introduce speedy and radical change. Guaranteed its $1.3bn annual grant from the US – a dividend from the Camp David peace accord with Israel – it has gained a reputation as a hidebound institution with little appetite for reform.
The frustration of the military's US benefactors shines through in leaked embassy cables, in which the criticism is focused mostly on the man at the top, 75-year-old Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi. A March 2008 cable described Tantawi as "aged and change-resistant".
It said: "Charming and courtly, he is nonetheless mired in a post-Camp David military paradigm that has served his cohort's narrow interests for the last three decades. He and Mubarak are focused on regime stability and maintaining the status quo through the end of their time. They simply do not have the energy, inclination or world view to do anything differently."