Walls divide Cairo as revolt anniversary nears

CAIRO Thu Jan 5, 2012 10:23am EST

Troops stand guard behind a wall they built to separate them from protesters, during clashes between troops and protesters near the cabinet offices, in Cairo December 18, 2011.  REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

Troops stand guard behind a wall they built to separate them from protesters, during clashes between troops and protesters near the cabinet offices, in Cairo December 18, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Asmaa Waguih

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CAIRO (Reuters) - Nagaat Mohamed was sitting at the counter of the downtown Cairo stationery store where she has worked for three decades when the street outside erupted with tear gas and rocks last November. She locked the doors and fled.

When she returned three weeks later, the neighborhood had changed. Graffiti decrying Egypt's military rulers covered the buildings. The car horns and chatter of cafe patrons were gone. Strikingly, a wall of massive concrete blocks sliced the once-bustling street in two.

Security forces have erected four such walls in the streets connecting the protest movement's symbolic heart in Tahrir Square to state buildings, including the Interior Ministry and the cabinet, since the clashes with protesters in November.

The barriers stand as a stark symbol of the divisions that have appeared to grow more pronounced since Egypt's military rulers took over from President Hosni Mubarak, ousted by a popular uprising last February.

Gulfs have widened between the army and the young activists who sparked the revolt, between Islamists and liberals, and between various squabbling political factions -- all testament to the challenges Egypt faces as it enters a year scheduled to see a new constitution and handover to a civilian president.

"It's the first time I've seen anything like this," Mohamed, 55, said, glancing at the door of her dimly-lit store. "It's like we're living in Iraq, with the barriers between us like this."

The walls have helped impose at least temporary truces between security forces and protesters - at least 59 demonstrators have been killed since November - but they have also strangled the area's street life, redoubled already-snarling traffic and driven customers from local businesses.

Commuters, shopkeepers, residents, activists and pundits have reacted to the walls with a blend of anger, disbelief, laughter and even some relief, mirroring the conflicted feelings many have developed about the course the revolution has taken.

Almost everyone interviewed for this article said they hoped the barriers would soon come down, one way or another.

"All of this happens at our expense," Ahmed Shawky, a 35-year-old driver, said as he rerouted his taxi through Cairo's winding side streets. "Streets are closed, and then traffic comes from those streets and clogs the open streets. Everything gets squished," he said.

"We don't want these walls, and we don't want any trouble. Enough is enough. We're the ones whose work is suffering."

WALLS GO UP

Some parts of downtown Cairo now resemble militarized zones. Tangles of barbed wire mingle with burnt-out cars, armored personnel carriers stand in front of empty stores, and soldiers check the ID cards of people on their way to shop or work.

Many of the fast food and coffee chain stores on Mohamed Mahmoud Street - where the fiercest of November's clashes took place - had to shut down again, some having only recently replaced windows shattered during the first uprising.

Diehard protesters have staked their claim to the Tahrir side of the barriers, covering the area with vibrant graffiti. Some is light-hearted, as with one quoting Pink Floyd: "All in all, you're just another brick in the wall."

But most is more solemn. One black-and-white mural shows dozens of men and women with white bandages across their faces, a homage to protesters hit in the eyes with pellets or rubber bullets.

"Freedom is coming for certain," reads the writing on one of the walls, alongside another showing a stencil portrait of a police officer "wanted" for taking aim at demonstrators.

Some graffiti calls for people to boycott the parliamentary elections now entering their third and final stage, the first step in a countdown to a promised military handover to civilian rule by July.

Passers-by stop near the walls to pose for photos, or peek around the edges and ask the soldiers on the other side the quickest way around them.

As with the Berlin Wall and the Israeli "separation barrier" in and around the West Bank, the other sides of the walls are mostly bare. Soldiers and police, flanked by barbed wire, stand guard nearby.

Mohamed Elshahed, a doctoral candidate at New York University and commentator on architecture and urban planning in Egypt, compared the walls to barriers put up over the years around the British, Israeli and U.S. embassies, as well as the upscale communities that have sprouted in Cairo's suburbs.

"When previous walls were erected throughout the city, they too seemed odd, but with time, they were accepted into the city's daily fabric. The basic question regarding these various types of walls is: To whom does the city belong?" he wrote in the English language edition of Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.

"This is not Baghdad. This is not East Jerusalem. Those standing on both sides of these walls are Egyptians. Those in power should never have allowed such walls to exhibit their inability to manage a just society."

MEASURED VIOLENCE

In September, security forces put up a barrier around the Israeli embassy to prevent protesters from storming it.

Since then, they have raised the walls after days of street battles in which protesters have thrown petrol bombs and chunks of pavement and security forces have fired tear gas, rubber bullets and, rights groups and activists say, live ammunition.

That is a far cry from the early days of the revolt, when demonstrators took to the streets chanting, "The people and the army, one hand." Now, demonstrators are more likely to chant, "The police and the army, a dirty hand."

Many activists, appalled by the death toll from what began as peaceful protests and by images of soldiers and police beating people even as they lay on the ground, have pointed to the walls as a tacit admission that authorities can or will not control their own security forces.

"It's obviously neither effective nor sustainable because the army simply will not be able to build a concrete wall in the face of every protest in every street in every city," Hossam Bahgat, a human rights activist, said.

"My guess is eventually they will realize they are simply incapable of dealing with civilian mass protests and they will prevent their troops from engaging with protests directly."

Others suggest that allowing some measured violence plays into the military's hand, allowing the generals to label the protesters as "thugs" bent on destabilizing the country.

It is a tactic activists say is calculated to play to the "silent majority," a purportedly vast constituency that values order and stability above revolutionary change.

Given the dearth of reliable polling data in Egypt, it is hard to tell how large this part of the population actually is, but there are hints the argument has found traction with many.

"As long as these people stay and keep making demonstrations like this, things aren't going to get better," Mohamed, the stationery store worker, said. "They need to give people a chance to work."

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