Egyptian Army empties Tahrir Square

Six months after Egyptians gathered in Tahrir to oust former President Hosni Mubarak, protests have largely lost the support of a public more focused on the economy and upcoming elections.

Vehicles move through Tahrir Square as soldiers remove protesters from camping out in the square which has blocked traffic through the intersection for almost a month in Cairo on Monday, Aug. 1.

The first holy month of Ramadan after Egypt’s uprising began today not with festivities, as expected, but with violence. Military and police descended on Tahrir Square and violently dispersed protesters who had camped there for nearly a month to push for democratic reform.

Crowds of local residents, shopkeepers, and bystanders gathered and cheered the security forces as they tore down tents and beat and arrested some of the demonstrators. Their support for the break-up signals growing popular opposition to protests as worries about stability and the economy prevail.

By sundown on the first day of Ramadan, when Muslims traditionally fast during the day and feast and celebrate with family at night, Tahrir Square was littered with the debris of destroyed tents. Security forces had forced most people to leave the square, and opened it to traffic. Workers filled garbage trucks with the belongings of people who had been camped in the square.

“This causes me to lose hope about our future,” said one bystander who didn’t want to give his name. “This is what we have come to – violence during Ramadan, and Egyptians fighting Egyptians.” But others disagreed, praising the military for restoring order.

Organizer debate over whether to continue sit-in

Sunday night, under the tattered shreds of the once-massive covering that shaded protesters from the August sun, organizers had debated the way forward for their sit-in demanding faster and further-reaching democratic reform from the military council ruling the nation until new elections are held. Some groups had withdrawn earlier, deciding to suspend their protest during Ramadan.

Some protesters wanted to pull back and consolidate tents near a massive bureaucratic building, and open the square to traffic in a gesture to nearby businesses hurt by the closure and commuters infuriated by traffic snarls. Others vowed not to pull their tent stakes up from ground that felt sacred to them.

“Why did we come here?” asked Ahmed Salah, one of the organizers, after a heated strategy discussion in one of the tents. “For specific demands, right? So we won't leave until we have those demands.”

But he had recognized the pressure from nearby shopkeepers and wanted to open the square to traffic. "It cannot continue this way,” he said, unaware of what would happen Monday.

Why Egyptians are tired of Tahrir protests

The growing popular opposition to the occupation of Tahrir gave the military the ability to clear the square without an uproar. For weeks, the military has been carrying out a propaganda campaign against those in the square, accusing them of being backed by foreign agents or of being thugs out to destroy Egypt.

Outside Tahrir, many agree. Nearby shopkeepers are angry; others are worried that the continued protests hurt tourism, a key source of income for the nation; and still others prefer to focus on transferring power to an elected government through coming elections.

Already the Ramadan season was shaping up to be far more subdued than usual amid a sagging economy and worries about the transition. Streets normally a riot of blinking lights, fluttering banners, and hanging lanterns are plainer this year.

“The people who are in Tahrir must go home,” said Amr Sayed, who works at a grocery store downtown where business the day before Ramadan would normally be booming. Instead, it was light. He gestured at the standstill traffic caused by the square’s closure.

His family’s budget, already stretched, will allow for few of the extras associated with Ramadan. This month, they won’t eat much meat, whose price has skyrocketed, and they will go easy on the traditional sweets normally eaten after they break the day-long fast.

“They need to go home and give things a chance to get better,” he said. “The sit-in makes things worse.”

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