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18 April 2024

Egypt's military to clear Square, cabinet meets

Egyptian army soldiers surround remaining protesters on Tahrir Square as the military tries to help people return to normal life in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday morning. Protesters were debating whether to lift their 24-hour-a-day demonstration camp in Tahrir. (AP)

By Reuters

Egypt's military rulers ordered protesters to leave Tahrir Square, a symbol of the tumultuous revolt that toppled Hosni Mubarak, as the cabinet on Sunday made law and order and restarting the economy its top priorities.

"The army is the backbone of Egypt. Their solution is not to remove us from the square," said a protester over loudspeakers, as the army moved in, pushing and occasionally lashing out with sticks. "They must respond to our demands."

The Arab world's most populous country is taking its first tentative steps towards democracy and protest organisers are forming a Council of Trustees to defend the revolution and negotiate with a military that wants life to return to normal.

"We do not want any protesters to sit in the square after today," Mohamed Ibrahim Moustafa Ali, the head of military police, told protesters, while soldiers removed tents from the square, the epicentre of opposition to Mubarak's 30-year rule.

Egypt's cabinet, appointed when the 82-year-old president was still in office, would not undergo a major reshuffle and would stay to oversee the political transition to civilian rule in the coming months, a cabinet spokesman told Reuters.

A cabinet meeting, due later on Sunday, could provide some  answers to a protest movement hungry for change after the momentous revolution that shocked and enthralled the Middle East, sending a warning to autocratic rulers across the region.

"The shape of the government will stay until the process of transformation is done in a few months, then a new government will be appointed based on the democratic principles in place," the spokesman said, adding some portfolios might change hands.

"The main task of this government is to restore security and order and also start the economic process, and to take care of day-to-day life," he said. 

As if to reinforce this message, soldiers and military police in the early hours of Sunday broke up the mass protest in Tahrir Square into small groups to allow traffic to flow freely for the first time in two weeks to get people back to work.

Protesters said soldiers had detained some of their leaders and more than 30 people had been taken to an army holding area around the Egyptian Museum, which houses a unique collection of ancient artefacts, next to the square.

The army had no immediate comment.

The crowd chanted "peacefully, peacefully" to the troops whose mission on the first day of Egypt's working week was to let commuters through to work in an economy badly damaged by the uprising that ended Mubarak's draconian rule.

Tanks and armoured cars were positioned around the square where banners still hung demanding regime change and where people were crowding around a makeshift memorial to about 300 people killed in the revolt. Volunteers were clearing rubble.

The high command has given no timetable for transition but tried to reassure with a statement on Saturday, underlining a commitment to democracy and international treaties, aimed particularly at Israel with which it has a peace treaty.

The military's strategy was to calm the nation and the world about its future intentions and, in the short term, to ensure law was being enforced after the disgraced police melted away, having failed to crush the protest with teargas and batons. 

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the military council, met ministers on Saturday and stressed the need for an immediate return to normality.

Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq said: "The first priority, no question about it, is security. An equally important priority is to provide the elements needed for the daily life of citizens."

Interior Minister Mahmoud Wagdy, with whom Tantawi discussed "the speedy return of the police to duty", said on Saturday 13,000 prisoners who walked out of prison in the early days of the uprising against Mubarak were still on the run.

Some traffic police were on the streets of Cairo on Sunday alongside soldiers and tanks guarding intersections and important government buildings.

The army said it respected the demands of protesters, whose mass action drove Mubarak from power. But it has also repeatedly called on them to go home now that they have achieved their goal to let normal life resume.

Anti-Mubarak protests that electrified Egypt erupted on Jan. 25 and traffic stopped flowing through Tahrir after Jan. 28, one of the most violent days of the uprising. 

Sunday's early morning violence did not last long, but the army action, backed by military police, split demonstrators who had previously controlled the square into smaller groups.

"In the square, in the square, we demands our rights in the square," some chanted as soldiers corralled the crowd.

About 2,000 demonstrators were in the square and some tents still stood in the grassy central area as the army moved in to clear them. Plastic sheeting was suspended by protesters from trees for shelter. 

Although Mubarak's resignation met the protesters' key demand, some have said they plan to stay in the square to ensure the military council keeps its promises on transition, reserving the right to call more mass protests.

Protesters want the immediate abolition of emergency law that has been used by Mubarak's security apparatus to stifle opposition and dissent for three decades, the release of all political prisoners, and free and fair elections.

Troops were ordered on to the streets on Jan. 28 after police fought street battles to try to contain protests but lost control. The army has taken a largely neutral role, but has detained some protesters and journalists, often briefly.

"There is no enmity between the people and armed forces ... We ask you not to attack our sons. This is not the (behaviour) of the armed forces. This is a peaceful protest," one protester said on loudspeakers. "We demand that the armed forces release all our sons that have been arrested in Tahrir."

Some passers-by felt the time for protests was over.

"Haven't they got what they want? Can someone explain to me what is left of their demands?" asked one bystander.

However, Jihad Laban, an accountant, said much work remained to make sure the revolution did not squander what it had gained.

"We stood by the army in their revolution," he said, alluding to the 1952 coup that toppled the British-backed king. "They need to stand with us in ours.

"The goal was never just to get rid of Mubarak. The system is totally corrupt and we won't go until we see some real reforms. I am going to be buried in Tahrir, I am here for my children. Egypt is too precious to walk away now."

A 38-year-old industrial worker who gave his name only as Mohamed, said he had changed his mind about going home.

"I was going to leave today, but after what the military has done, the millions will be back again. The corrupt system still stands. It has gone back to using the only thing it understands -- force. If we leave, they won't respond to our demands."