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Protesters flood into square, gunfire heard

Thousands of protesters streamed back into Cairo's Tahrir Square today after the army tried to disperse them and gunfire was heard near the interior ministry where police were demonstrating over wages.

world Updated: Feb 13, 2011 17:28 IST

Thousands of protesters streamed back into Cairo's Tahrir Square on Sunday after the army tried to disperse them and gunfire was heard near the interior ministry where police were demonstrating over wages.

"The army and people are united" and "Revolution, revolution until victory," the demonstrators chanted, after military police had told them to take down tents and let normal life return.

Police officers, emboldened by the protests that led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, gathered to demand higher pay and a security guard said warning shots had been fired in the air.

The police force was pulled off the streets when it lost control of anti-government protests last month.

Some have held their own protests and sit-ins since Mubarak's overthrow on Friday, seeking higher wages and immunity from prosecution.

Egypt's military rulers earlier ordered protesters to leave Tahrir Square, a symbol of the revolt that toppled Mubarak, to let traffic flow and allow commuters to get back to work in an economy that has been damaged by the tumult.

"The army is the backbone of Egypt. Their solution is not to remove us from the square," said a protester over loudspeakers, as the army moved in, pushing and occasionally lashing out with sticks.

"They must respond to our demands."

After minor scuffles, the protesters regained some space and more arrived.

The Arab world's most populous country is taking its first tentative steps towards democracy and protest organisers are forming a Council of Trustees to defend the revolution and negotiate with a military that wants life to return to normal.

"We do not want any protesters to sit in the square after today," Mohamed Ibrahim Moustafa Ali, the head of military police, told protesters, while soldiers removed tents from the square, the epicentre of opposition to Mubarak's 30-year rule.

An army captain, who asked not to be named, said the military wanted to call time on the protests.

"We need to tend to our regular jobs," he said.

"The general order is not use physical force with protesters, but there is no telling what may happen when tempers flare. Firing is absolutely forbidden."

Egypt's cabinet, appointed when the 82-year-old president was still in office, would not undergo a major reshuffle and would stay to oversee the political transition to civilian rule in the coming months, a cabinet spokesman told Reuters.

A cabinet meeting, due later on Sunday, could provide some answers to a protest movement hungry for change after the momentous revolution that shocked and enthralled the Middle East, sending a warning to autocratic rulers across the region.

"The shape of the government will stay until the process of transformation is done in a few months, then a new government will be appointed based on the democratic principles in place," the spokesman said, adding some portfolios might change hands.

"The main task of this government is to restore security and order and also start the economic process, and to take care of day-to-day life," he said.

"Peacefully, peacefully"
To reinforce the message, soldiers and military police in the early hours broke up the mass of protesters in Tahrir into groups to let traffic flow for the first time in two weeks.

Protesters said soldiers had detained more than 30 people and taken them to an army holding area around the Egyptian Museum, which houses a unique collection of ancient artefacts, next to the square. The army had no immediate comment.

The crowd chanted "peacefully, peacefully" to the troops whose mission on the first day of Egypt's working week was to let commuters through.

Tanks and armoured cars were positioned around the square where banners still hung demanding regime change and where people were crowding around a makeshift memorial to about 300 people killed in the revolt. Volunteers were clearing rubble.

The high command has given no timetable for transition but tried to reassure with a statement on Saturday affirming a commitment to democracy and international treaties, aimed particularly at Israel with which Egypt has a peace treaty.

The military's strategy was to calm the nation and the world about its future intentions and, in the short term, to ensure law was being enforced after the disgraced police melted away, having failed to crush the protest with teargas and batons.

Swift police return
Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the military council, met ministers on Saturday and stressed the need for an immediate return to normality.

Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq said: "The first priority, no question about it, is security. An equally important priority is to provide the elements needed for the daily life of citizens."

Interior minister Mahmoud Wagdy, with whom Tantawi discussed "the speedy return of the police to duty", said on Saturday 13,000 prisoners who walked out of prison in the early days of the uprising against Mubarak were still on the run.

Some traffic police were on Cairo streets on Sunday beside soldiers and tanks guarding intersections and key buildings.

The army said it respected the demands of protesters who drove Mubarak from power. It has also urged them to go home now that their main goal had been met to let normal life resume.

Anti-Mubarak protests erupted on Jan. 25 and traffic stopped flowing through Tahrir after Jan 28, one of the most violent days of the uprising.

Sunday's early morning violence did not last long, but the army action, backed by military police, split demonstrators who had previously controlled the square into smaller groups.

"In the square, in the square, we demands our rights in the square," some chanted as soldiers corralled the crowd.

Military pledges
Despite Mubarak's resignation, some protesters have said they plan to stay in the square to ensure the military council keeps its promises on transition.

They plan a big demonstration next Friday to celebrate the revolution and honour those killed.

Protesters want the immediate abolition of emergency law that has been used by Mubarak's security apparatus to stifle opposition and dissent for three decades, the release of all political prisoners, and free and fair elections.

"There is no enmity between the people and armed forces ... We ask you not to attack our sons. This is not the (behaviour) of the armed forces. This is a peaceful protest," one protester said on loudspeakers.

"We demand that the armed forces release all our sons that have been arrested in Tahrir."

Some passers-by felt the time for protests was over.

"Haven't they got what they want? Can someone explain to me what is left of their demands?" asked one bystander.

However, Jihad Laban, an accountant, said much work remained to make sure the revolution did not squander what it had gained.

"We stood by the army in their revolution," he said, alluding to the 1952 coup that toppled the British-backed monarchy.

"They need to stand with us in ours."

"The goal was never just to get rid of Mubarak. The system is totally corrupt and we won't go until we see some real reforms. I am going to be buried in Tahrir, I am here for my children. Egypt is too precious to walk away now."