Egyptian Army Takes Tahrir Square
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Today, the Egyptian army did something it did not do during the weeks of protests that led to a revolution, the army seized control of Tahrir Square. Protesters have held that famous spot in Cairo since January.
NPR's Steve Inskeep is in Cairo and today, saw rows of soldiers standing on the perimeter that the protesters once defended. And Steve joins me now. What exactly happened today, Steve?
STEVE INSKEEP: Well, it came at the end of a day of battles around the square, Robert. Men armed with clubs and stones repeatedly attacked Tahrir Square and repeatedly were beaten back. It's not at all clear who the attackers were. The protesters thought they might be under assault from members of Hosni Mubarak's former ruling party. But that was not confirmed. These men were simply described as thugs.
I watched one of those battles this afternoon. Protesters rushed out from the square toward the perimeter, defended their position with lengths of two-by-four. There were battles near the Egyptian National Museum. An extremely tense situation. And then, according to witnesses, there was a kind of a surprise attack by the army.
SIEGEL: The army. Now, the protesters had seen the army as being on their side. What happened here?
INSKEEP: Well, exactly. And that was part of the reason that it was a surprise. One protester told me later that when the army appeared, people thought the army was there to protect the protesters. In fact, the word spread among the protesters, everything's OK, be calm, the army's here to help. But, in fact, they weren't. They smashed into the encampment.
A YouTube video that's available tonight shows the army ripping down tents and by the next time that I passed the square, early evening here in Cairo, it was entirely under the soldiers' control. They were ringing it. They were surrounding it.
SIEGEL: Steve, why would this happen today?
INSKEEP: Well, we don't know from the army directly, but this did happen at the end of an increasingly tense series of days. Protesters forced out a prime ministry, you'll recall, Robert, just last week by threatening to protest again in Tahrir Square. And then over the weekend, they broke into the state security building. They pulled out many, many documents relating to intelligence gathering on citizens themselves.
And you may recall, it was the army that very publicly appealed for people to return those documents, saying, it's very important you bring these back. They're important for security. And, of course, that appeal was ignored. The army was defied.
There have also been signs of disorder in the city, quite a number of people killed in clashes in the last 24 hours in several different parts of the city. Some of this appears to be fighting between Muslims and Christians. You'll recall there's a Christian minority, a significant Christian minority in Egypt. So there are certainly many excuses for the army to say that they have had enough and, in fact, conspiracy theories about whether the disorder was fomented to allow this kind of takeover. We certainly don't know that.
But we do have a reminder here that this is not a democracy as of this minute, after this revolution. This was the army taking charge of the country and they were asserting their control today.
SIEGEL: Well, does the fact that the army has taken Tahrir Square mean that's that, or the protesters will not try to take it back or might they do just that?
INSKEEP: Well, it's by no means certain that the protesters will give up here. In fact, although it's not one person's decision, you can see talk on Twitter tonight that people are talking of going back and taking back the square. A protester that I spoke with said that people would likely try. But, of course, they're now going to face quite a lot of firepower if they try again.
You'll recall that there have been incidents in which the protesters were pushed back. Early in that sequence of a little less than three weeks that began on January 25th and ended with Hosni Mubarak's ouster, there were occasions in which the protesters seemed to lose ground and they pushed back and pushed back and regained territory in Tahrir Square.
But they were able to do that in part because the army, for the most part, did not try very hard to keep them out. In fact, in many key cases, simply stayed on the sidelines. Now the army is in that square and so anybody going in now would be facing the army, facing an awful lot of firepower.
SIEGEL: Steve, thanks for talking with us today.
INSKEEP: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Steve Inskeep of MORNING EDITION, speaking with us today from Cairo.
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