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When the army creates a frontline in Egypt

Ahram Online reporter's account of the violent end to the peaceful march by protesters from Tahrir Square to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' headquarters on the anniversary of the 1952 coup

Ayman Farag, Sunday 24 Jul 2011
Abbassiya clashes
Protesters come under attack in Abbassiya, Cairo on Saturday (Photo: Reuters)
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The army and military police were behind barricades of barbed wire by the time the march on the headquarters of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces reached its premature end point outside Al-Nour Mosque in Abbassiya. There was a fire engine crew and television cameras among the tanks; they were ready for everything that was about to be set in motion.

Behind the mosque’s gates and on the pavements people from the neighbourhood gathered as we waited for the inevitable clashes. In my mind the only question was whether the residents had been wound up to go at us with lies from the army and media or had their palms greased to attack us. The way the media had been inciting people to turn on protesters and critics of the military council in the previous few days meant the soldiers only had to stand and watch; their work here was done.

As I made my way to the barriers those standing on the pavement under the buildings chanted the old – and blind – standard of “the people and the army are one hand” to which the protesters replied “the people and the people are one hand.” When someone tried to start a chant of “Mubarak and the army are one hand”, he was given no encouragement. The atmosphere was tense enough as it was on this, the army’s holiday.

But the army hadn’t blocked us in here to hear our chorus and soon enough the show began. Whether there was a trigger, I do not know but there was a sense of mock disbelief as the first rocks came down on us. As we ran back, more rocks came from behind the mosque’s gates on the right. The call to sunset prayer offered an immediate but brief respite: before a few people had time to kneel on the ground they were standing on, the rocks came back.

It wasn’t just the rocks and bottles that etched panic into the air. Were these hired thugs or local residents attacking us? It’s easy to know what to expect from a band of mercenaries and how long the clashes last depends on how wired and keen to please they are. But were we here outside the homes of people who had been led to believe we were traitors damaging the country or amoral thugs endangering them?

The army had picked the perfect spot to make us stop. They could have let us walk some more, tire us out further on the hot streets but here they had us in the tight space of someone else’s backyard. Among all the chaos and fear, it never crossed my mind to wonder if the military police would intervene. They didn’t need to: whoever was attacking us was doing a good enough job on their own.

From inside the television and radio studios, lies are spread and rumours passed as news about the army’s role in Egypt and those protesting across the country. By trampling on calls for social justice and human dignity in this way, the ruling military council is doing more than frustrating the revolution’s demands. It is also painting a stark and depressing picture of how far Egypt has to go and how adept the generals have become at utilising its most reactionary elements to steer the country back towards the night.

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