The Egyptian army began to reassert control around Tahrir Square on Saturday, with the government emphasizing a return to normality while preparing for negotiations with a divided opposition struggling to devise a common strategy.
According to the authoritative government owned newspaper Al Ahram, President Hosni Mubarak has resigned as leader of the ruling National Democratic Party. However, state television reported that Mubarak had accepted the resignations of the leaders of the party, leaving the president’s future role uncertain.
Hundreds of soldiers moved into streets around the square that has been the focus of 12 days of revolutionary fervor and the one tangible symbol of opposition success.
Control of the square, or even a return to normal traffic of the area around it, would reinforce the government’s message that it would remain in control of the country for the seven months leading to elections — and that President Hosni Mubarak need not resign as the opposition demands.
Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq said on state television that stability was returning to the country and that large demonstrations like the one that took place at Tahrir Square on Friday would not succeed in forcing a regime change.
“We haven’t been affected and, God willing, next Friday we won’t be affected,” he said. “All this leads to stability.”
Some feared the relative calm was only a prelude to a show of force by the military
“All of a sudden, I’m a little bit worried that something will happen,” said Amr Said, a 24-year-old student, as little boys scampered through the crowds in Tahrir carrying trays of bread on their heads. In the afternoon chill, people swarmed stands serving up hot cups of tea.
Fatima Khalid, a 29-year-old in a head scarf, said government calls for a return to normality might foreshadow a crackdown.
“But they need to understand: For us, this is normal now,” she said. “We will never stop asking for our rights.
At one principal entrance to the square, pro-regime demonstrators were allowed to push up against the razor wire strung across the road, literally rubbing shoulders with those waiting to enter the square.
Even with army troops a few yards away, some found the close presence of the pro-Mubarak forces intimidating.
“I think it that is deliberate,” said accountant Mohammed Gamal, an anti-government protester. “It is to give the idea that very little stands between us and them.”
Moving gingerly to avoid confrontations, the army took over a small side street leading to the square past the Egyptian Museum, where the most intense clashes between pro and anti-government forces has taken place.
Angry protesters confronted the soldiers at both ends of the street, but for the first time the army appeared to have sufficient numbers to maintain control.
“The army joined the police against the people,” said Karim Sadiq, 24, as he stood in the side street with several hundred other protesters attempting to maintain control of the area.
Before nightfall, protesters continued to control a large section of downtown Cairo to the east of Tahrir Square, setting up barricades and searching anyone who wanted to enter.
Inside the square an Egyptian general sat on a white government car near the museum with a megaphone, calmly and at times jokingly urging the protesters to go home and to trust the new government appointed by Mubarak.
While the prime minister addressed the “stability” concerns of Egyptians invested in the regime, Vice President Omar Suleiman planned to meet with a broad array of opposition leaders, including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, to discuss proposals for how to proceed toward elections for a new president in September.
Ahmed Magib, a youth movement organizer, said protesters have a number of demands, such as the removal of Mubarak, regime change, constitutional reform and guarantees protesters will not be arrested or intimidated by security forces.
“Mubarak leaving would appease the crowd a lot,” said Magib, his voice hoarse from days of protesting. “But that would only be halfway. It’s not good enough. We want regime change.”
He added that young organizers were worried that their voices weren’t being heard as the government and traditional opposition parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Ayman Nour’s El Ghad Party, look for ways to nudge Mubarak aside and form a transitional government.
“The old opposition parties don’t represent the young people. Everyone needs to realize that it was the young people who brought about this change. We need to be heard.”