Middle East
8:20 pm
Fri March 30, 2012

To Keep Protesters Away, Egypt's Police Put Up Walls

Egypt's revolution has brought with it unrest, including clashes in Cairo in the areas around the Interior Ministry, a hated symbol of the former regime.

After five days of skirmishes in early February, Cairo's police chiefs ordered the construction of a series of 10-foot walls, seven of them in all, to block off access to the ministry.

Other walls have sprung up throughout the area, too, following other bouts of violence. Vibrant neighborhoods have been transformed into a maze of checkpoints and concrete blocks. Now residents are trying to get adjusted to the new, imposing barriers that have virtually paralyzed a large section of downtown Cairo.

How Long Will The Walls Remain?

Mohsen Issa is the owner of a pet store that has been in business in the city for more than half a century. When he returned to his shop after clashes in November, he found a horrific scene.

"I came to see the animals, and of course they were all dead. I had many fish and a Rottweiler, and cats — all were suffocated. I tried to get to the shop earlier but I couldn't," he says.

He says the animals died because of exposure to tear gas. Like other shop owners in the area, Issa says the new walls have hurt his business, but he worries that the security situation might be worse if they weren't there.

"The walls are necessary until we have a new president, and then all this will be removed," he says. "So we should wait for two months, and it's OK, we can just go around."

But others here are not prepared to wait. Khaled el-Balshy, the editor-in-chief of Al-Badeel newspaper, says the walls have turned his neighborhood into a sort of green zone — a reference to the heavily fortified section of Iraq's capital Baghdad, established after the U.S. invasion.

Balshy has sued the head of Egypt's ruling military council and other prominent figures, calling for the removal of one particular wall that stands between his home and his office.

"I'm accusing the government of the same things that they accuse protesters of doing — disrupting traffic and slowing down the economy," Balshy says.

Concrete Divisions

Mohamed Elshahed, an urban planning expert, says that the walls are symbolic of a long history of troubled relations between Egyptian police and civilians.

"In a way, they are new and unprecedented in their physical manifestation, but they reflect divisions that had already existed long before — between rulers and ruled, state institutions and the population," he says. "Now that the security apparatus has been weakened so much, the division had to be manifested in a literally concrete way — which is walls."

Mohammed Kadry Said, a retired major general and a senior analyst at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says that the walls provide a limited solution.

"Either you go out and shoot the crowd who are attacking the building of the Ministry of Interior and can put a fire on it, or you can make a shield, so at least you are safe." A long-term solution, Said says, will only come by improving the relationship between police and citizens.

On a recent afternoon, a group of artists took on the task of removing the walls — figuratively if not literally — by painting the barriers with images of the streets behind them.

"We are symbolically removing the walls," said Salma al-Tarzy, one of the artists. "Therefore we are painting streets in perspective or whatever anyone wants to do, but the thing is these are not walls. We are refusing the walls physically and as a symbol of the regime of the military."

Neighborhood residents gathered to look at the painted image of the streets beyond the walls — a reminder of what has been lost.

Editor's Update 3/31: A small group of protesters tore down one of the walls on Friday night. Security forces confronted the demonstrators, but there was no serious violence. The remaining walls are still in place. The editorial curation site Storyful has videos and more from the night's events.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Nearby, Egypt has also seen a year of monumental change and upheaval. A popular revolution brought down a longtime dictatorship there. That revolution was not without violence. The clashes centered around Cairo's Tahrir Square, and spread to nearby areas, in particular, the Interior Ministry, a hated symbol of the former regime. The violence prompted Cairo's police chiefs to order the construction of a series of walls, seven of them in all, each about 10-feet high, to block off access to the ministry.

Reporter Merrit Kennedy tells us how those walls have affected the lives of Cairo residents.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET TRAFFIC)

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: In the middle of a night in early February, army soldiers lay blocks of concrete into place, sealing off a neighborhood street leading to the Interior Ministry.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASHING)

KENNEDY: This came after five days of clashes around the Ministry, between security forces and stone-throwing protesters. There were several rounds of violence in the area, and after each, new walls were built. Vibrant neighborhoods have been transformed into a maze of checkpoints and concrete blocks.

Residents are trying to get adjusted to the new, imposing barriers that have virtually paralyzed a large section of downtown Cairo.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARKING DOG)

KENNEDY: Mohsen Issa is the owner of a pet store that has been in business here for more than half a century. He describes returning to his shop after the November clashes, to a horrific scene.

MOHSEN ISSA: (Through Translator) I came to see the animals, and of course they were all dead. I had many fish, and a Rottweiler, and cats - all were suffocated. I tried to get to the shop earlier but I couldn't.

KENNEDY: He says the animals died because of tear gas exposure. Like other shop owners in the area, Issa says the new walls have hurt his business, but he worries that the security situation might be worse if they weren't there.

ISSA: (Through Translator) The walls are necessary until we have a new president, and then all this will be removed. So we should wait for two months, and it's OK, we can just go around.

KENNEDY: But others here are not prepared to wait. Khaled el-Balshy, a local resident and the editor-in-chief of Al-Badeel newspaper, says the walls have turned his neighborhood into a sort of green zone - a reference to the heavily fortified section of Iraq's capital, Baghdad, established after the U.S. invasion. Balshy filed suit against the head of Egypt's ruling military council and other prominent figures, calling for the removal of one particular wall that stands between his home and his office.

KHALED EL-BALSHY, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, AL-BADEEL, NEWSPAPER: (Through Translator) I'm accusing the government of the same things that they accuse protesters of doing - disrupting traffic and slowing down the economy.

KENNEDY: Mohammed el Shehad, an urban planning expert, says that the walls are symbolic of a long history of troubled relations between Egyptian police and civilians.

MOHAMMED EL SHEHAD: In a way, they are new and unprecedented in their physical manifestation, but they reflect divisions that had already existed long before between rulers and ruled, state institutions and the population. Now that the security apparatus has been weakened so much, the division had to be manifested in a more literally concrete way, which is walls.

KENNEDY: Mohammed Kadry Said, a retired major general and a senior analyst at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says that the walls provide a limited solution.

MOHAMMED KADRY SAID: Either you go out and you shoot the crowd, which are attacking the building of the Ministry of Interior, and will can put a fire on it, or you can make a shield, so you can at least you are safe.

KENNEDY: He says a long-term solution will only come by improving the relationship between police and citizens.

On a recent afternoon, a group of artists took on the task of removing the walls figuratively if not literally - by painting the barriers with images of the streets behind them. Salma al-Tarzy is one of the artists.

SALMA AL-TARZY: We are symbolically removing the walls, therefore we are painting streets in perspective or whatever anyone wants to do, but the thing is that these are not walls. We are refusing the walls as physically, and as a symbol of the policy of the regime of the military.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOICES)

KENNEDY: Neighborhood residents gather and look at the painted images of the streets beyond the walls, a reminder of what has been lost.

For NPR News, I'm Merrit Kennedy in Cairo.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS AND DRUMS)

SIMON: And an update from Cairo last night. A small group of protesters tore down one of the walls, the others are still in place. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.