What startled me most was the force with which the soldier seized my arm. He was young, not more than twenty, and the contempt -- was it fear? -- in his beady eyes was matched only by the vicious manner in which he wrenched the camera from my hands. I had paused to take a photograph of the protesters marching through Tahrir Square, as I had been doing consistently for the last week, and before that, for the first eight days of the revolution. But this day, March 9th, would be different.
I was marched across the street, through a gauntlet of armed military men, and into a barricaded alcove next to the Egyptian Museum. Soldiers searched my pockets and thumbed through my wallet, demanding repeatedly to see my passport, which I had thoughtlessly left at home. In broken Arabic I explained that I was American, that I worked at the American University in Cairo, and that I was simply on my way to a talk by Huda Lutfi, a renowned Egyptian artist. "Have you heard of her?" I asked, grasping for a straw of camaraderie, adding, "heeah mumtaza -- she is amazing."
The man tasked with debriefing me was not amused. He dragged me deeper into the barricaded area, past a chain-link partition, toward the museum entrance. There, a group of 15-20 uniformed soldiers were pummeling the limp bodies of three protesters, whose prostrated frames twitched horribly with the flurry of blows from wooden clubs and boots. Occasionally, a soldier would yelp with pleasure as he loosed the electrical current from a Taser on one of the protesters. At one point, a fine spray of blood and broken teeth escaped from one man's mouth. I was close enough to hear the soft clacking sound that enamel makes when it collides with pavement.
Among the soldiers clustered around me, there seemed to be some confusion about what should be done. No hierarchy was discernible; it was just one group gesturing wildly toward the barbarous scene in front of me and another group shaking their heads and waving the contents of my wallet. At length and to my relief, the naysayers prevailed, and I was allowed to return to the front of the detention area, where I stood for some time with other Western-looking detainees, including one journalist who shared my incredulity at the display we had just witnessed. If they were doing that in front of us, what were they doing behind closed doors?
As I walked home to my apartment, I saw perhaps the most dispiriting thing of all: a man using a razor blade to scrape the "January 25th" sticker -- marking the first day of the revolution -- off the bumper of his car. He knew as well as I did that the regime had started taking names.
The Egyptian Revolution is not over, but the period of feel-good flag-waving may be. What I witnessed today was the first time the military has turned decisively against protesters, who are themselves now split to a certain extent between Coptic Christians and Muslims, staunch democrats and those who would rather return to work. In the early morning hours of February 26th, the military used force to clear protesters from the square -- that was the first warning -- but even that was benign compared to the brutal regime-sanctioned beatings I witnessed today. To invoke one of the revolution's most popular refrains, it seems that the military and the old regime "are one hand together."