Egyptian Army Moves Against Protesters

Is Egypt's revolution on the rocks? The army has taken over Tahrir Square and sectarian clashes between Christians and Muslims have left more than a dozen people dead. All this as Egypt seeks to make the transition to democracy.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne with Ari Shapiro in Washington.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep in Cairo, where Egypt's army has issued a reminder who's in charge. Soldiers swept protesters out of Tahrir Square yesterday. It happened in the middle of a tense and deadly week. Events are moving quickly here.

Yesterday afternoon, some of the protesters who ousted President Hosni Mubarak were still living in tents, and those protesters, including Yusri Fathallah, were under attack.

Mr. YUSRI FATHALLAH (Protester): (Through translator) We have been seeing that some people, we don't know if they are from, they are thugs or from the police, who are saying that they're coming here because the people want to clear the square.

INSKEEP: Protesters raced to defend themselves against unidentified men throwing rocks.

Several hundred people now running away from the square over to a far corner of it, some of them waving sticks and boards.

In the midst of the fighting, soldiers arrived. Protester Aida al Kashif recalled that for weeks the army had said it was on the protesters' side.

Ms. AIDA AL KASHIF (Protester): We thought they were coming to protect us, so everyone who was in the square kept on saying, screaming like to calm down, calm down. So we all were relaxed that the army was coming in.

INSKEEP: And then came the shock.

(Soundbite of honking horns)

INSKEEP: YouTube video posted last night showed soldiers tearing down the encampment that protesters had defended since January.

A lawyer for the protesters says many were arrested, and some say they were beaten or tortured. And protester Aida al Kashif says this changes the protesters' relations with the army.

Ms. AL KASHIF: They opened a war, a clear and direct war against protesters. There's no way that they can take it back.

INSKEEP: All of this is happening against a backdrop of dramatic events, which we're going to talk through with NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson here in Cairo.

And Soraya, why would the army move against the protesters now?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Well, for weeks they've been trying to clear the square, which has sort of become symbol of this revolution and a constant reminder to the world that the people rather than the authorities are in charge here. And certainly there were some events in the previous days that have made the army particularly interested in clearing the square. One of them has been these clashes between Muslims and Christians, which have claimed as many as 13 lives.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk a little bit more about that. There's more of a sense - perhaps chaos is too strong a word - but more of a sense of anxiety and several different acts of violence between Muslims and Christians around the city. What's happening?

NELSON: Well, the latest event that has sort of precipitated this was a reported relationship between a Muslim girl and a Christian man, and the families apparently engaged in some sort of feud that ended up with a church being burned down in the Cairo suburb of Helwan. That in turn prompted protests around the country by Copts who feel that this is just yet another example of how they are being left behind, that nobody cares about them, that they are being discriminated against.

INSKEEP: Copts. We're talking about Coptic Christians here, the name for Christians in Egypt. They've been protesting continuously in downtown Cairo, but some of these clashes have taken place in outlying neighborhoods. There's a number of reports of gunfire and people dead around the city in the last couple of days.

NELSON: Absolutely. The Copts, though, have used this incident as sort of the impetus for these demonstrations. They've been very quiet, frankly, during the protests and the revolution - frightened in a way, because at least under Mr. Mubarak's regime they felt there was some attempt at government protection, even if they didn't agree with the policies and felt there was still discrimination. But now, with the lack of law enforcement - meaningful law enforcement in Egypt - they feel that they are open targets.

INSKEEP: A reminder that nobody really knows where they stand as this new order develops. And at the same time, politics seems to be moving forward here. We've heard from a couple of likely presidential candidates in the last couple of days.

NELSON: Yes. Mr. Amr Moussa of the Arab League certainly has made it clear that he plans to run, and so has Mr. Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace laureate, who was for while seen as a leader of the opposition here. But both those candidates face serious challenges with the youth leaders of this revolution, and also with people - with regular people here who are perhaps not participating in protests but who have concerns about the economic situation.

INSKEEP: Concerns about the economic situation. Of course there's been a lot of economic fallout from the protests. And we're just days away now from a vote on amendments to the constitution. Is everyone entirely comfortable with the timing of this?

NELSON: Absolutely not. They feel very rushed here. This is more being driven by the army, which has made it clear that they don't want to be the government of Egypt. They want within six months to turn this over to somebody in civilian rule. But they also want to preserve what they have. And there's a benefit to rushing this along because there's no time for political parties to be established, for candidates to really make themselves known, and so you might end up with a situation with some of the same power brokers from the past being in charge again.

INSKEEP: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson here in Cairo. Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Steve.

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