After long week, uncertainy is king

As Egypt's unrest entered its seventh day, a crowd of thousands remained in Cairo's central Tahrir Square, and despite

    CAIRO, EGYPT -- As Egypt's unrest entered its seventh day, a crowd of thousands remained in Cairo's central Tahrir Square, and despite the continued presence of an army that many seem to welcome with open arms, tensions have been mounting.

    Police have begun redeploying to the streets for the first time since Friday, when the demonstrations reached a climax and bloody clashes with protesters left more than 100 dead.

    That day ended with president Hosni Mubarak announcing the dissolution of his cabinet, but that concession doesn't seem to have placated the populace, especially not the core of dedicated anti-government protesters who have been camping in Tahrir Square night after night.

    It remains unclear how they will receive the newly returned police presence, and in the meantime, the security situation remains uncertain, as reports of escaped prisoners and citizens' arrests spread through the capital.

    And though the crowds greeted the army jubilantly when it first arrived on Friday and have since treated the soldiers as novel tourist attractions, complete with tanks that can be used as climbing gyms and photo opportunities, the soldiers' presence on the streets is slowly shifting from a source of reassurance to one of anxiety.

    On Monday, as we spoke with Hassam Shalaby, a man who works in the tourism industry and was visiting the square for the first time, gunshots rang out around 200m away. The sound is familiar in Cairo these days, and we initially ignored it, but more shots followed, and the crowd began to sweep toward the commotion.

    At an army checkpoint blocking the square from Talaat Harb Street, a main thoroughfare, soldiers tried to manage a group of yelling onlookers, some of whom formed a human chain to stop others from getting closer. Protesters emotionally asked us to return to the square, while the army waved us away.

    Witnesses told us that a police officer had walked near the checkpoint wearing his uniform, that the crowd had attempted to set upon him, and the army had fired in the air to keep them away.

    Standing on a sidewalk nearby, Ibrahim Roshdy told us that the officer had flashed his police identification card in defense.

    Roshdy, an Egyptian man who has lived in the United States for 24 years but has spent the past seven months visiting his mother, daughter and family in Egypt, told us that the people loved the army, but back on the other side of the square, at a checkpoint leading to Kasr al-Nil bridge, the scene was different.

    A small crowd had gathered around a man who was complaining to an army officer that his brother and friend, who he said had both been shot in the past few nights of looting, were being discharged from an army hospital in the nearby neighborhood of Maadi.

    His brother had taken a bullet to the leg, and his friend was shot in the eye - both allegedly by prisoners who had been released (or escaped) from custody in the craze of recent events. Neither were in a condition to go home, he said, so what should they do?
    The officer was disbelieving: The hospital would never discharge men in poor condition, he asserted.

    The man said the doctors told him they had more important cases to cover the officer refused to believe him. The man, his face beading with sweat, stormed away and refused to talk or give his name to us as we walked after him. He yelled at a solitary sentry standing nearby, knocked over a gate, and walked away.

    In Tahrir the night before, an angry crowd had accused army officers on tanks of instigating a spate of shooting that erupted nearby. The army responded by tightening their cordon on the exit, ushering us farther into the square.

    But the officer at the Kasr al-Nil checkpoint, who refused to give his name, told us that the army would never use force against the civilians. What about the police, I asked – don’t you think their return to the street will lead to violence?

    The officer shook his head they’ve been ordered not to use any force against the people, he said.

    Yaseen Abdelghaffar, a young chemist in the research and development department of a food manufacturer who we found helping cleaning Kasr al-Nil bridge of debris, told us that earlier the previous morning, he and his friends had found and detained two men wearing prisoners' uniforms who had escaped from Wadi Natroun prison on the road from Cairo to Alexandria.

    "We tied them up, beat them up and gave them to the army," he said.

    Though it seemed clear that people continue to rely on the army for protection, the situation on Cairo’s streets Monday afternoon was shifting in a different direction.

    At the interior ministry office in Giza, covered pick-up trucks and large, blue central security trucks could be seen idling behind metal barriers. The trucks - a symbol of the government's repressive tactics which have been attacked and burned in the past week of protests - were full of police in riot gear. Two dozen plainclothes men stood around, some carrying sidearms. An army officer told Al Jazeera that the police would deploy at curfew time.

    In front of a police station in the Dokki neighborhood, the police announced their new presence on the streets with an impromptu press conference. Men in civilian clothes toting AK-47s and pistols gathered nearby. Others in police uniforms – but wearing army camoflauged helmets and flak jackets – sat in police trucks holding submachine guns.

    Several top commanders from the Giza governorate, which is separate from Cairo despite being essentially the same city, attended the roadside talk with the press. They assured the cameras that the police were returning to protect civilians, and another man, who had evidently been prepared for the occasion, as he was toting a bouquet of flowers, waxed on eloquently about how the people should thank the police and, in fact, pay for the renovation of their headquarters.

    But as the brass sped off in their private cars and the junior officers trailed in five metal-topped Nissan pick-up trucks, the mood seemed more heavy with foreboding than happiness.

    I asked one of the plainclothes men if their automatic-weapon firepower was normal with a smile, he said it was. When I asked whether they’d redeploy in their uniforms Monday night, he said he didn't know, and walked away.


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