Walls divide Cairo as revolt anniversary nears

Thu Jan 5, 2012 10:23am EST
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By Alexander Dziadosz

CAIRO (Reuters) - 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 neighborhood 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.   Continued...

<p>Troops stand guard behind a wall they built to separate them from protesters, during clashes between troops and protesters near the cabinet offices, in Cairo December 18, 2011. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih</p>