In Egypt’s Tahrir Square, crowds still looking for revolution

Thousands of people gathered here Friday in the square that was the heart of Egypt’s uprising to protest a proposed new law that would ban protests — and to voice fears that their revolution may not have been much of a revolution, after all.

Exactly six weeks after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, protesters in Tahrir Square said they worry that some things have not changed. Exacerbating those worries was the decree this week by Egypt’s civilian cabinet that will ban protests and strikes deemed harmful to the economy if the military approves it.

A host of other issues — the continued use of a three-decade-old emergency law that gives the government sweeping rights to detain people without trial; Mubarak’s apparent continued freedom; and a growing sense that Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood will be the two dominant political forces in a democratic Egypt — led some people to say that their work is hardly finished.

“How can you decree a law banning protests?” said Aiza Kamel Abed, 50, a general manager at the Education Ministry. “Nothing has been achieved from our demands. We need freedom.”

The crowd in Tahrir Square was noticeably older than the hundreds of thousands who packed the area in late January and early February demanding the ouster of the president who had ruled them for almost 30 years. Many of the young, largely secular protesters who initiated the protests in January have been arguing about their next steps, and in the meantime organized political groups have stepped up to fill the vacuum.

Many of the youthful leaders of the movement that toppled Mubarak campaigned unsuccessfully against a raft of constitutional changes approved in a referendum Saturday that set elections for the fall.

The timing of those elections is a boon for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a ready-made organization to support candidates and parties. Younger protesters are ill-equipped by comparison to mount effective political campaigns.

But the young people in the crowd Friday still appeared passionate about their protest movement and the possibilities it has created.

“This has been a political problem for 30 years. The people had all the views in their chest. It’s time now to shout loudly,” said Mustafa Said, 25, who works at a bank. “We want to feel that we have dignity.”

Not everyone in Tahrir appeared to share his enthusiasm about protests.

“All the people are going out and demonstrating for their personal needs, not national needs,” said Halmi Zaki, 60, who said he did laundry at a hotel until he lost his job. He said that he supported Mubarak’s ouster but that it was time to go back to work.

“If we stay as it is with the demonstrations, in three or four months our economy will be completely down,” he said.

And a crowd of about 300 people marched toward the protesters chanting pro-government slogans. Some were driving a police pickup. People in the square said many of them were the same government-paid civilians who turned out in January and February to beat up protesters and provoke clashes.

There was tension, some shouting and a few fights Friday, but nothing large-scale.

The revolution, for some, has yet to happen.

“Everything is like it was before,” said Halim al-Sharif, 28, a commercial diver.

Special correspondent Haitham Tabei contributed to this report.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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