The Army's OK with the Protesters, for Now

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Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

Protesters cheer for army soldiers in central Cairo January 29, 2011.

Parts of Egypt's capital city seemed almost normal on Saturday as the embers of Friday's vandalism and carnage cooled. After a night wracked by gunfire and explosions, set off by burning cars and buildings, many people took to the streets again on Saturday to survey the new face of their country. Amid the burnt carcasses of police trucks and the newly positioned military tanks, the streets of downtown Cairo and central Tahrir Square — the epicenter of this week's uprising — had almost regained the atmosphere of community activism that characterized the first day of protest on Tuesday.

It's a change that many here credit to the arrival of the Egyptian army which moved in with tanks and armored vehicles last night as the feared Egyptian police force fled. "The Army has calmed the area," says one systems engineer who declined to give his name. "It stopped people from looting but it didn't fire on the people."

Tanks moved down Cairo's wide roadways on Saturday past throngs of protesters who signaled V for victory. Others clambered onto stationary tanks, snapping mobile phone pictures with their friends. "The people feel that the Army is supporting them because the Army is outside the system," explains Arab Lotfi, a filmmaker who was demonstrating in Tahrir. "Everybody is feeling so free today, free of a police state."

Indeed the emergence of military authority on Cairo's streets and, more importantly, the disappearance of interior ministry forces was greeted by many as a breath of fresh air. Crucially, it was also viewed as a stepping stone toward a larger goal. "The difference between now and 1952 [the year of the military overthrow of Egypt's king]," Lotfi adds, "is that in 1952 they thought the Army could rule. Now they want democracy."

That much was clear as tens of thousands of protesters continued to defy a nationwide curfew on Saturday night, continuing their chants in Tahrir and marching over the city's Nile bridges. Most say the revolution is far from over. "We will continue this until we achieve victory," says Khaled Tantawy, a member of the band Muslim Brotherhood, who had returned to Tahrir Square for the fifth day in a row despite a cracked rib suffered in a police beating. "This big process is to get [President Hosni] Mubarak to leave."

Mubarak offered his first big concession late Friday night when he appeared on state television to announce a cabinet reshuffle. His choices notably included old guard Egyptian officials like intelligence chief Omar Suleiman — now vice-president — who have close ties to the military rather than big business. Outside of Egypt, some speculated that Suleiman's appointment may be part of a transition process to a post-Mubarak era. In his three decades of autocratic rule, Mubarak has never had a vice-president, much less a designated successor.

But demonstrators greeted the cabinet reshuffle as little more than an attempt to stay put — and a ploy that they say simply wouldn't cut it. "The presidential speech isn't enough. It doesn't address people's demands," says Khaled Yahya, who owns a music store a few blocks from the presidential palace. "How many days did it take for Mubarak to come out? He announces the resignation of the ministers and people are still coming out and looting. If he really loved this country, he would hold elections and let people choose who they want."

The graffiti on the walls of the now shattered ruling party headquarters echo the same message as the chanting masses of Tahrir Square: "Game over, Mubarak" and "Enough Stealing, Mubarak." Others expressed fury at a still climbing death toll, estimated at over 100 since the start of the day on Friday. And sporadic gunfire continued into the night on Saturday across the city. Witnesses reported at least four protesters when they clashed with residual plainclothes police who were defending the interior ministry. And a prominent Bedouin smuggler in the Sinai peninsula told TIME that Bedouin are now in control of the two towns closest to the Gaza Strip, and that they planned to press on to attack the Suez Canal if Mubarak does not step down. He also said that police stations in the south Sinai would be attacked if Bedouin prisoners were not released.

Indeed, in spite of a broadly favorable view of the military, which so far has yet to fire on protesters, it remains unclear just what will happen if the Army chooses to defend a president whom the people want removed. "Right now, we're seeing the Army do the job of the police," says Yahya the music store owner. "And that worries me. Right now we're hearing about looters? Is the army going to protect my store and protect us?" In the wealthy diplomatic neighborhood of Maadi, looting continued on Saturday. Other reports filtered in of damage done to the Egyptian Museum, home to some 2 million artifacts, including the treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Those treasures were reportedly not harmed but Zahi Hawass, Egypt's czar of antiquities, confirmed that vandals destroyed two pharaonic mummies.

In some neighborhoods, civilians had taken on the role of providing security themselves. "There aren't enough soldiers, so I'm here protecting the neighborhood," says 23-year old Mohammed Karim, who was part of a gang of stick-wielding men checking traffic and IDs in the neighborhood of Zamalek. "The regime wants the people to be against the revolution so they want them to think it's unstable," adds Osama Lotfi, a lawyer who blames the looting on interior ministry forces.

But the regime may also be holding its breath to see what the revolution advocates like Lotfi do next. In the wealthy district of Heliopolis, the presidential palace is only lightly guarded by a mix of soldiers and police. In the days before demonstrations broke out just a few blocks away but now all is quiet because the army has restored order, residents say. Lotfi says the palace guard are little more than a core group of Mubarak supporters that will never fall away. "It's natural," he says. "But if the people go there, it will be a violent face off. This might happen at a later stage if the president insists on holding on to power."

As for Mubarak himself, shouts would go up among the crowds in Tahrir Square every time a rumor rippled through that he had left the country. It is widely believed, however, that the president remains in his vacation home in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheik in the south Sinai — the very spot the Bedouin have their eyes on.