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Memorial at Egypt's Tahrir Square sparks protest

Published: Monday, Nov. 18, 2013 7:42 a.m. CDT

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CAIRO — Where tents once sprouted and protesters chanted, municipal workers are now laying grass and flowers in the roundabout of Egypt's famous Tahrir Square.

There in the center, workmen rushed to put the finishing touches on the base of what the government says will be a memorial dedicated to the protesters killed in Egypt's political turmoil, which has seen two presidents ousted from power in 2011 and 2013.

But the turmoil is not over. Even now, soldiers routinely block off the often-deserted square with armored personnel carriers and barbed wire on days authorities fear protests and clashes could reach the central Cairo plaza. Tuesday marks the anniversary of some of the fiercest confrontations between protesters and security forces near the square — and some say the memorial doesn't honor the dead as much as it tries to paper over the turmoil still gripping the Arab world's most populous country.

"No transitional justice starts by building a memorial in Tahrir," said political activist Rasha Azab, who took part in the 2011 and 2012 clashes. "I have no doubt that this memorial will be destroyed soon. It doesn't represent anything."

The memorial construction is part of a government plan to show that the country has regained stability since its 2011 Arab Spring uprising that saw longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak step down and the July 3 popularly-backed military coup that ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. A short walk away, authorities plan major renovations at the famed Egyptian Museum as well.

The yellow-stone memorial at Tahrir will be dedicated to the "martyrs of the two revolutions," Cairo Gov. Galal Said has said. Authorities will hold a competition to choose a sculpture to be hoisted on the memorial, Egypt's state news agency MENA quoted Said as saying.

On Monday, Interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi inaugurated the monument's foundation amid tight security at Tahrir, with all entrances to the square sealed off by police.

Watching workers lay stones at the memorial Saturday evening, Amr Suleiman, a bank worker, praised the government's efforts to claim the square from what he described as incessant dissent.

"This is perfect," Suleiman said. "It's better than the sit-ins and all the thugs, thieves and beggars who were hanging out here."

Mahmoud Osman, who came to the square with his wife and two children waving Egyptian flags, said he was happy the government finally is honoring those who died demanding change.

"This step should have come long ago," Osman said.

But similar refurbishing efforts by successive governments since the 2011 uprising ended up derailed by new protests, though this latest attempt is the largest structure built by authorities there since the revolution. Some view the official efforts to beautify the square as an attempt to deny them access to an area that has become a symbol of opposition to authoritarian rule. Disputes also erupted when workers tried to start painting over spray-paint graffiti nearby honoring fallen protesters or those with strong political messages.

The new memorial also comes as Tuesday marks the bloody confrontations between protesters and the police during Egypt's past two years that erupted in Mohammed Mahmoud Street. The street begins at Tahrir and leads to the country's Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police.

At least 45 protesters died in the 2011 clashes there that began on Nov. 19 and went on for days. Another three died in clashes that erupted there during a commemoration last year, which included protests against the police and Morsi's government.

Many fear the second anniversary of the clash will be no less violent. Supporters of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood group plan protests Tuesday, as do revolutionary groups. A planned World Cup qualifier between Ghana and Egypt will be played in Cairo the same day.

In a televised statement Sunday, Interior Ministry spokesman Hani Abdel Latif said police will protect the planned rallies Tuesday, though it warned that authorities would deal harshly with anyone who turned to violence.

"The Interior Ministry offers its condolences to all the martyrs of the revolution whose pure blood was shed to water the tree of national struggle," Latif said.

But those words came as no comfort to those killed by police. Mohammed Abdel-Moneim, who lost his young son Mustafa in the 2011 clashes, dismissed the government plans for beautifying Tahrir Square.

"This memorial will not benefit me. My first and last objective is retribution," he said. "That's what will cure my sadness and my pain — and his mother's, who is still crying every day."

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