Tanks point at protesters in front of Cairo's palace

Wed, Dec 12, 2012, 00:00

All streets leading to Egypt’s presidential palace are blocked with metal and cement block walls and rolls of rusting razor wire. George shrugs his shoulders as he navigates Cairo traffic from one side of the palace to the other, pausing to ask directions until we find a narrow chink in a wall guarded by a besieged sextet of policemen in dark uniforms.

I flash my press card and push through to a wide expanse of roadway, sand and trolley tracks. Armoured scout cars are parked along the graffiti-covered outer wall of the elegant white palace, windows shuttered. A unit of the elite Republican Guards drills in front of a painting depicting President Mohamed Morsi as an octopus; another shows him in the head-dress of pharaoh.

Weary soldiers sit at the base of the wall: this is the first mobilisation of the military since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak nearly 23 months ago.

A pair of officers from the dreaded riot police are enjoying a chat as a youth escapes over a metal barricade and protesters beat an uneven tattoo.

Parked along the front wall of the palace are battle tanks, their cannons pointed outwards, to prevent storming of the palace by activists arriving later to protest over Mr Morsi’s December 15th referendum on a constitution liberals reject as flawed and imposed by Muslim fundamentalists.

Outside one of seven tents pitched in a scrap of garden are two young female media students. Aida says, “We’ve been here a week now. They’ve told us we can leave but if we do we can’t return. We plan to stay.”

There are five or six activists in each tent, four girls in all. None has been harassed, the bitter fate of many women attending demonstrations in Tahrir Square.

Aida states: “I’m against the old system that is still ruling now. I ask Morsi and the Brotherhood to step down. After he took power more than 35 people have been killed. Every day the situation is getting more complicated.”

Across town, Tahrir Square is closed to traffic. A white flag bearing a black fist adorns one of the two dozen tents . Vendors are roasting corn. A tall man warns “Be careful.”

Before dawn 16 protest campers were wounded by birdshot by masked attackers. Neither police nor army are on guard here.