x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Soldiers and Egyptian people still friends for now

So far the Egyptian army has maintained good relations with the protesting crowds on the country's streets, in sharp contrast to the hatred felt by the population towards the police.

CAIRO // As dusk fell here yesterday and thousands continued to rally in Tahrir Square in defiance of the government's curfew, a pair of army tanks blocked one of the main entrances to the square.

Instead of preventing the steady stream of citizens from heading to join the protests, the soldiers were vetting the crowd - checking everyone's ID and making sure no one was carrying a weapon.

When some of the protesters bristled at the procedures, one civilian stood up and shouted, "Co-operate with the army. The army and the people are together today. But we must be careful because there are people who want to come here and turn us against each other."

A sense of fragile co-operation seemed to reign over Cairo yesterday, as citizens and soldiers mingled openly and in many cases worked towards common goals.

The protesters' animosity towards the president, Hosni Mubarak, remained unchecked. One bit of graffiti sprayed on the walls of the burnt down National Democratic Party headquarters simply announced "Leave, stupid!" A man in Tahrir held up a sign that said, "We will not leave before you leave."

But in general, the anti-government anger was not directed at the soldiers, who deployed across the capital in greater numbers during the day. Throughout the tense previous night, amid widespread reports of looting, soldiers co-operated with dozens of spontaneous volunteer neighbourhood watch groups to protect various neighbourhoods. One of the keys to continuing that harmonious atmosphere will be the mutual respect that appears to exist between the army troops and the demonstrators. Far from the palpable hatred that existed between the protesters and the interior ministry's riot police, a different dynamic is on display between citizens and soldiers.

"The army is protecting us," said Essam Abdallah, a 23-year-old college student walking towards Tahrir. "The police never respected the people. They just exploited their positions. They only cared about their power and their nice uniforms."

The movie director Ahmad Abdallah, whose film Microphone was screened at last year's Dubai International Film Festival, recalls being in Tahrir Square on Friday night when Mr Mubarak called in the tanks after a day of vicious battles between police and protesters.

"The people said from the start 'The army is here, the army is here' and they ran towards them like guardian angels," Mr Abdallah said.

The protesters not only ran towards the tanks, they climbed on board to embrace the drivers and pose for pictures. One extremely patient tank commander made the universal sign for "wrap it up" to a couple of young protesters conducting an extended photo session on his vehicle.

Mr Mubarak seems well aware of the street-level respect enjoyed by his armed forces. Having dissolved his entire cabinet the night before, the president on Saturday laid the groundwork for a new government that bore an unmistakable military stamp.

Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, a former army general, is the new vice president. The minister of civil aviation, Ahmed Shafiq, is the new prime minister. Like Mr Mubarak, he is a former air force commander.

By stacking his new team with distinguished military figures, he is essentially hoping that their respect and reputation can paper over his own endangered legitimacy.

But one of the most pressing questions going forward is how long these pleasant relations can last in the midst of protests that show no signs of weakening.

Already yesterday there were ominous signs of a fraying in those relations. At one point hundreds of protesters, apparently alarmed by the steadily increasing army presence, blocked a pair of tanks from entering the square.

Just before 4pm another potentially disturbing development unfolded: a pair of military jet fighters flew over Tahrir, fast and low, several times. If planes had flown slower and at a higher altitude, the crowd would have likely seen it as a show of solidarity.

But the eardrum rattling nature of the flyovers struck many as an aggressive attempt at intimidation and fuelled speculation among the protesters that the soldiers were about to drop their previously tolerant attitude and turn their weapons on the crowds.

Mr Abdallah, the movie director, when asked what concerned him the most about the coming days, said simply: "The army. I hope that they won't take a U-turn. I don't think they will but it's something to worry about."