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Egypt's military treads carefully in Cairo

As rumors circulate that the army is going to take down barricades protecting Tahrir Square, a crowd faces off with a general in the gentlest of confrontations.

February 06, 2011|By Ned Parker and Doha Al Zohairy, Los Angeles Times
  • Men form lines in front of Egyptian troops near the Egyptian Museum. Thousands of protesters remained in Cairo's Tahrir Square throughout Saturday despite pleas from the army that they leave.
Men form lines in front of Egyptian troops near the Egyptian Museum. Thousands… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Cairo — The rumors had buzzed all morning. The Egyptian army was taking down the barricades that sealed off the main boulevard into Tahrir Square from violent supporters of President Hosni Mubarak.

Three tanks rolled up to the metal barricades, and the edgy, soot-stained crowd watched. They were ready.

Finally, an army general in a crisp green uniform rode up and faced the crowd: young protesters carrying stones, middle-aged men gripped with anger and fear.

As Gen. Hassan Ruwaini started to speak, they banged metal pipes to drown him out.

But other demonstrators, in their 20s, wanted to show they were respectful and hoped they could still win the army over to their cause. They remembered the chant, no matter how wistful it might be: "The people and the army are one." They shushed the others.

At first the general, bald, with crooked teeth, talked to them with affection, praising them and then gently chiding them.

"The youths of the 25th of January [movement] who have been preparing for three months, your movement is being taken over by political parties who are negotiating with the government," the general said. "The youths … wanted change and they organized through Facebook for change. These people are my brothers and sons."

But then he proceeded to admonish them like a schoolteacher. He accused them of stocking Molotov cocktails on roofs and paying uninjured people to walk around wearing bandages. Playing on fear among the young protesters that they would get left out of the negotiations over the government, he warned them that political parties were fooling them

Some started to shout over him, and other young men stood and crossed over the razor wire to stand with the general. They urged people in the crowd to listen, even if they disagreed. The general smiled then and pinched the men's cheeks.

He sat on his car roof and let the protesters vent their anger through his microphone, in an Oprah Winfrey-type moment. Occasionally, he laughed and kicked his heels, and put his arm around a protester. He gently tsked-tsked when they insulted Mubarak.

But finally he made it clear that the army wanted to open the roads leading to Tahrir Square. He moved forward and his soldiers removed a few of the sheet-metal barriers so he could walk through, but the crowd pushed forward.

His soldiers fell on their boss and pushed him through like a running back against a fearsome defensive line. Soon dozens of protesters banged pipes and people screamed as the scrum of military men and protesters pushed with elbows flying.

Then, somehow, the general convinced them that he was not bringing the tanks through. And like children at story time, the demonstrators once more sat at his feet as he let them shout grievances and then scolded them again.

The general said traffic up to the square would be allowed. But protesters vowed not to give up an inch of ground. They didn't believe the military would hurt them, and were sure the standoff would continue. Neither side would hurt the other.

"This is a French Revolution without the blood," said Ahmed Abdul Monem, a 22-year-old English literature student who had served in the army. "The army won't allow themselves to fight us, because we are part of them."

ned.parker@latimes.com

Al Zohairy is a special correspondent.

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