CAIRO, Egypt — It is a conspicuously quiet morning in the upscale Cairo hamlet of Zamalek, perched on a breezy island in the Nile River where the city’s well-heeled young sip expensive designer lattes at global coffee-shop chains.
For many of the wealthy residents here, the violence at Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where thousands of anti-government protesters have squared off in deadly battles with police forces for four days, could not be further away.
It is a surreal and in some ways uncomfortable reality for both demonstrators and observers to encounter: While several streets in downtown Cairo have transformed into a veritable battlefield, with volleys of potent tear gas, gunfire and Molotov cocktails puncturing daily life and leaving at least 30 protesters dead, the majority of this 20 million-strong city is going about its business as usual.
Live Blog: Updates from Tahrir Square
“We need to make ends meet, we need to support our families,” said 39-year-old Hisham Mohammed, a cashier at a small cafe perilously close to the frontline but that still served more than a dozen customers at a time yesterday. Mohammed was sporting a surgical mask while he worked to stave off the effects of tear gas inhalation.
“But I am with the people,” he said. “I am not with the police or army.”
Some of the normalcy is wrought of financial necessity or apathy, but some is also due to genuine opposition to protesters’ motives and tactics as they clamor to fell the military-run government.
Activists are calling for a complete end to military rule in favor of a civilian government, and a clear timetable for presidential elections.
At the heart of the protests in Tahrir, also the focal point of the 18-day uprising that ousted decades-long president, Hosni Mubarak, in February, some Egyptians are tired of the unrest or see activists as agitating security forces in a bid to sow instability ahead of legislative elections next week.
The elections would be the first since the revolt earlier this year, but are being held under the auspices of an ill-intentioned military council that seized power after Mubarak, critics say.
“Who are these people, what do they want? They are thieves and thugs,” said 35-year-old Mohammed Anta, the owner of a women’s clothes shop right on the square, of a group of youth who had turned the area in front of his store into a small Molotov cocktail-making factory. “We want the military to take control of this country for good.”
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Much of the anti-Tahrir sentiment is dredged up by government-run television and radio, where regime-dictated news anchors tell listeners that those fighting police in Tahrir are the tools of foreign agents and thugs bent on destroying Egypt.
But some of the resentment and exasperation with the activists is the result of genuinely destroyed livelihoods for those living and running businesses in downtown Cairo.
Sixty-three flights to and from Egypt were canceled since Friday due to the violence, Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, quoting a source at Cairo International Airport, reported Monday.
According to figures published by Egypt’s Central Bank in October, the country lost one-third of its foreign currency reserves since the beginning of the year due to political unrest.
On Sunday night, residents of an apartment building facing Mohamed Mahmoud — a key boulevard leading from Tahrir to the Ministry of Interior and now the primary battlefront — were so fed up with the noise and violence that they tossed a table out the window onto protesters on the ground below.
Elsewhere, security guards and doormen locked building doors to keep away “the protesters that act like thugs,” one downtown doorman said.
“I am praying to God that the protesters will leave,” said 52-year-old Mahmoud Mustafa, whose family has owned a small coffee shop in downtown Cairo since 1952. “Business is so slow and I am working less than half a day. SCAF [Supreme Council of Armed Forces, Egypt’s military council] does not want to rule in such a tough way. It wants to keep this country running.”
But for all of those upset with or dismissive of the protesters, there are also those incensed by the police brutality — and who had been streaming into the square in greater numbers each day.
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The main catalyst for the recent tumult occurred on Saturday, when riot police charged the square lobbing tear gas in a bid to evict protesters staging a sit-in from an anti-SCAF rally the day before.
Protesters flooded the square and with each perceived injustice at police or army hands — like when military police and security forces stormed the square Sunday night, and were broadcast beating the unconscious and the wounded — demonstrators were emboldened and many citizens disgusted.
“It is not the police’s right to kill the protesters, and the protesters should fight back,” said downtown kiosk owner Mahmoud Ramadan, 32. His kiosk, where he sells chips, cookies and tissues, was tipped over and damaged when protesters fled the military on Sunday — but says he does not blame them. He said they do not loot and that they know what structure they want to damage: the Ministry of Interior.
“My shop was damaged, but it does not make me angry,” Ramadan said. “It was worth it, for freedom. God will compensate me.”
Ali Abu Zeit, 37-year-old owner of a small shop selling imitation Nike and Adidas sneakers, also had his property damaged in the unrest that pushed protesters onto his street.
“Everyone on this street is suffering financially, and it affects me as a business-owner,” he said. “But this is not the issue. It is their right to protest and SCAF should give up their power. This problem is greater than my store.”
Activists are also confident more Egyptians are beginning to understand why they are fighting and dying in the streets.
“People are changing their ideas about Tahrir,” said Mohammed Ramadan, a 28-year-old filmmaker and activist. “A lot of people did not agree with what was happening here before, but now they are coming down. They have seen the video of police dragging dead bodies and beating people. They are upset.”
Protesters on Monday called for a “million man march” in Tahrir on Tuesday to continue the demonstration and defend the square against security forces.
In the meantime, as tear gas canisters soared down streets and sent protesters fleeing in panic, a lone public bus made its way toward the mayhem and into a cloud of gas, with several passengers fast asleep on their daily commute.