Tanks at the ready
Egyptian protesters didn't march to President Hosni Mubarak's official residence Tuesday, as planned, but that didn't stop the Republican Guard at his suburban Heliopolis residence from setting the table for the hundreds of thousands of "guests" they were expecting.
In front of the expansive white house and matching walls where, last week, stood a single tank, the Guard had erected tall barricades of razor wire. At every entrance to the extensive compound stood a tank or armoured personnel carrier with machine guns at the ready. On the road behind the Heliopolis Sporting Club stood the most notable receiving line - a line of no less than 60 tanks, across the sports fields which could come to the President's rescue at short notice.
Meanwhile, a block away, in downtown Heliopolis, young people handed out flyers calling for the end of the Mubarak regime.
Economics of the revolution
A handful of vendors are doing brisk business inside Tahir Square, which has a mini-economy that seems to ebb and flow with the protests. The price of one of the most popular items - an Egyptian flag - spiked after Mr. Mubarak's speech from $2 to $3.
They started out as a kind of neighbourhood-watch operation in the absence of police patrols: men from the community set up makeshift checkpoints to inspect cars coming into their residential areas. Nothing wrong with that, especially in view of the widespread looting that had been taking place at night. But four days on, and two days after police have returned to many areas, the idea got out of hand.
At every stop, they block the way and demand to see identification, or at least that of the driver, while one of the group inspects the trunk and looks into the car. Usually they tolerate the English-speaking, touristy-looking passengers and sometimes apologize for the inconvenience to them. "Welcome to Egypt," they cheerily say.
That's bad enough if only encountered a couple of times. But civilian checkpoints have multiplied, like rabbits. Often they are no more than 50 metres apart in the downtown areas - every street has to have its own inspection it seems. And the civilian guards are looking more and more threatening. On Tuesday, in one downtown neighbourhood, a man wielding two swords, one in each hand, approached our car on the passenger side to underscore the importance of following the orders of the man on the driver's side who insisted on seeing our identity papers.
The guards also are getting younger. At several checkpoints, there were young boys, some no more than nine, carrying clubs, emulating their arcade game heroes, in real life.
Children figure strangely prominently into this protest. Parents are bringing babies and children with them to the protests, anxious to have them be a part of history. At one point, somebody gave a three-year-old a megaphone. The child yelled: "Down with Mubarak."
On Saturday, in the euphoria of first victory, joyous crowds gathered round the tanks and armoured personnel carriers that had entered downtown Cairo. They embraced the soldiers, had their photos taken with them and, in many cases, wrote slogans on the sides of the tanks: Down with Mubarak and others. No more.
On Tuesday, approaching Tahrir Square, one found tanks being repainted by the soldiers. In some cases, they just blotted out the messages; in one case a soldier was using a roller to paint the whole side of the tank with a fresh coat of army green.
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