CAIRO // For a few short hours of calm early yesterday morning, residents of the Egypt's capital milled about the military's tanks, mesmerised at the sight of burnt-out cars, smashed windows and other debris left over from a night of deadly violence.
Everyone appeared to be trying to come to grips with fast-moving protests that, overnight, transformed the cityscape and posed the greatest challenge to the country's government in the 29 years that Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt.
Soldiers in tanks and armoured personnel carriers maintained peace in the square during the morning hours as tens of thousands began gathering in the city's central Tahrir Square for a major afternoon rally.
Many residents and demonstrators greeted the military warmly, saying they were confident the soldiers would not open fire on them.
"The army will take control of everything now," said Ahmen A, an accountant who felt safe enough to make his first trip to Tahrir square since protests started on Tuesday. He declined to give his last name for fear of angering the authorities.
"There are no more bullies and police forces. Now you see an open-minded, peaceful group of people," he said.
Riot police, who were ubiquitous on the city's main thoroughfares until Friday, were nowhere to be seen yesterday.
The soldiers smiled, shook hands, and even let some demonstrators get atop the tanks. Some armoured carriers had anti-government graffiti sprayed on their sides, presumably applied by demonstrators on the previous night. On one tank was scrawled: "Down with Mubarak."
Several demonstrators walked around the square with garbage bags, picking up shotgun casings and other debris left from the night before and appealing to their friends to come help. Some strolled through the crowds with their children.
Demonstrators described the conscripted army as a protective shield against the police, and said they could not imagine being attacked by soldiers who could be their neighbours or friends.
Abdu Moahib, 23, finished his military service late last year and was spending his second afternoon in Tahrir Square after having spent the night sleeping on the pavement. He doubted that the soldiers would open fire, but he predicted violence from the other security forces.
"Of course there will be violence," said Mr Moahib, who works at a dry cleaners in Giza, on the western bank of the Nile, adding that he would not return to work until the protests achieved their goal of overturning the government.
"I will stay here until the very end."
Away from the protesters and the central square, shopkeepers were more worried about the potential for violence.
At one popular noodle shop on Qasr al Ainy street, a major thoroughfare that passes by the parliament building, had been the scene of violence on Friday night. Magdi Mohammed Hamed stopped serving customers at 1pm and was planning to lower the steel gate of his shop well before the start of the yesterday's 4pm curfew.
Another shopkeeper, who declined to be named because he feared being arrested by soldiers, said he was worried about the return of vandals to his block. "The army is not doing anything, They're just here to protect the banks, the embassies, and the big hotels," he said.