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Sun 8 Jan 2012 03:22 PM

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Walls divide Cairo as revolt anniversary nears

Egypt’s barriers, street battles reflect country’s long path back to peace

Walls divide Cairo as revolt anniversary nears
Politically-inspired graffiti covers Cairos barriers

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 neighbourhood 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."

Some
parts of downtown Cairo now resemble militarised zones. Tangles of barbed wire
mingle with burnt-out cars, armoured 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.

Article continues on
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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 US 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."

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 realise 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
destabilising 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."