Egypt cairo clashes - AP - November 2011
A veiled woman uses her cellphone to take pictures as protesters clash with police in Cairo this week. Photo by AP
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CAIRO - "I feel like we fell asleep 10 months ago, and now we woke up and nothing has changed," said Ahmad Atta, a 31-year-old computer teacher, expressing the thoughts of the tens of the thousands of Egyptians streaming into Cairo's Tahrir Square even at 2 A.M. on a Thursday. On one of the side streets, the young people trying to stop the police from retaking control of the square were unwittingly shouting a slogan from the Spanish Civil War: "They shall not pass."

In the center of the square was a carnival atmosphere, with Egyptians of all ages milling around among the hundreds of food vendors. A large group walked around the square shouting "The people demand an end to the bloodshed" and, "In peaceful ways." A few hundred meters away, on one of the streets leading to the square, hundreds of young people had already prepared Molotov cocktails to lob at the police lined up between the square and the symbol of their control, the Interior Ministry building.

The youngsters encouraged themselves by denigrating the police. "They aren't even Egyptians," said one. "They think that all the other Egyptians can die and they can stay here by themselves," said another.

As in every violent confrontation with police, thousands stood at a relatively safe distance of 50 meters, at the edge of the tear gas grenades' range, while 200 fearless youngsters faced off with the police on the front line. Motorcyclists rushed to whisk away the wounded to the first aid station set up in the square.

The demonstrators, whose numbers keep growing, have no orderly list of demands or consensus. One thing does appear to be undisputed - they believe the first round of parliamentary elections scheduled for next week is totally irrelevant. "Why have elections if the army is continuing to hold on to power and the police can run wild?" said Ahmad Maher, 25, a legal intern.

Entire streets have been covered with election posters, but not near the square. Here, candidates barely come to meet with voters. The first round of supposedly free Egypt's supposedly free elections has quickly become tainted, almost like the elections held last year by former President Hosni Mubarak's party, whose ridiculous results became an impetus for the revolution. What is clear now, at least in the current round, is that it's not the Muslim Brotherhood that is driving events. Though Tahrir Square has a few small groups of Ikhwan activists and of members of more extreme Salafist groups, the masses confronting the police are far more secular. The few women present are without head coverings, and wear completely Western clothing.

Officially, the Muslim Brotherhood opposes this week's demonstrations. It did demonstrate in the square on Saturday, but since then has vanished from view. The movement has a lot to lose if Monday's elections lose their relevance. As the most organized political party in Egypt, it expected to pluck the largest number of seats. Though it used to face persecution from the regime and the security forces, it also knew how to forge tacit agreements with them. Now, however, there are other parties that are clearly benefiting from the recent events, as long as there is no plan for the orderly transfer of authority from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to some civilian body.

What is now uniting the demonstrators is a profound hatred for the police and the sense of insult burning in people who feel "they've stolen our revolution." This is already a matter of internal Egyptian honor. At the beginning of the revolution, in January and February, many posters in English were hung in the square, in order to show the real Egypt to the outside world. Now, all the posters are in Arabic and the demonstrators are no longer seeking out foreign correspondents to present their worldview. The latest attempts to place blame for the riots on "foreign elements" are failing. A lone demonstrator carrying a placard with the flags of the United States, Britain and Israel, with the inscription "The axis of evil," didn't find anyone who shared his opinion.

Another focus of the masses' hatred is Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who has become the symbol of the old regime's attempts to continue to hold power. Most of the calls in the square in recent days have been for the field marshal's departure. A group of Salafists shouted: "He should go to Israel." Some of the demonstrators blame the whole army, but the prevailing feeling is the same as it was in the beginning of the year, when the masses surrounded Mubarak's tanks and roared "The people and the army hand in hand."

"The generals are not good, but the soldiers are our brothers," said Hisham Said, 49. He wants a civilian leader and mentions names of people who could serve in a temporary unity government, including Amr Moussa, Mohamed ElBaradei and Mohammed Salim Al-Awa, but none of these names stir much excitement among the demonstrators. Nor do they have another candidate for the presidency.

"Do you see him?" said teacher Muhammad Atta, pointing to an elderly man bending over to pick up scraps of food and cardboard boxes in a hopeless attempt to clean up one small spot in the filthy square. "I want him to be our president. At least he is someone I can trust to love Egypt."