A year after revolution, thousands flock to Egypt’s Tahrir Square

January 25, 2012

On the first anniversary of the start of Egypt’s revolt, hundreds of thousands of people flooded into Cairo’s Tahrir Square and took to streets elsewhere across the country Wednesday in the largest nationwide demonstrations since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.

In the capital, some Egyptians celebrated as they gathered at the traffic circle whose name has become synonymous with the global pro-democracy movement. Most, though, appeared to be there to mourn and protest military rule. The generals assumed control immediately after Mubarak fell, 18 days into the revolt, and Egypt has traveled an uncertain and troubled path since then.

Activists have accused the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of trying to preserve their political powers and influence the writing of a new constitution to protect their own interests at the expense of a genuine democratic transition.

Revolutionaries also say that the backbone of Mubarak’s government is still in place within the security apparatus, that human rights abuses are continuing and that the revolution must go on until key demands are met — including full repeal of the hated emergency law and prosecution of those responsible for the deaths of more than 1,000 people at the hands of the security forces during the past year.

In an address to the nation Wednesday, Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri praised the military council in language that contrasted sharply with the chants of the revolutionaries headed to Tahrir Square.

“We are all anxious to see the will of the great Egyptian people achieve unconditional freedom, sheltered by security, guaranteeing to each citizen safe ways of life that would make Egyptians feel that the country’s best interest is the goal,” said the elderly prime minister, whom many activists view as a tool of the generals.

The military council issued a statement on its Facebook page reassuring citizens that it would hand over power by the end of June to an elected president. It also implied that its role in last year’s revolt was much larger than Egyptians know.

“When we talk, many truths will be revealed that will make this people prouder of their children from the armed forces,” the statement said. It also included a pledge to “leave Egypt wearing the brightest dress, the dress of freedom and democracy.”

Celebration mixes with protest

As the council praised its own accomplishments, many marching to the square called for the execution of its leader, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, in a sign of the growing animosity toward the nation’s rulers.

Women and men, religious and secular, young and old made up the crowd of marchers. They waved to people in nearby buildings, encouraging them to join in, and held up posters demanding the end of military rule.

Ahmed Abdel Naguib, 42, who wore a sign on his back reading “Candidate for martyrdom” dismissed those who have said they are tired of protests and ready for stability.

“For 30 years we waited for change, and it never came,” he said.

The protesters did not necessarily represent a majority view. According to a recent Gallup poll, 82 percent of Egyptians believe the military will hand over power to a civilian government as promised.

On Wednesday, the scars of 12 months of unrest were visible at Tahrir Square — from the burned-out scientific institute where protesters and soldiers clashed for days to the concrete walls built to block protesters from the cabinet and Interior Ministry buildings in nearby streets.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s stage was emblazoned with the words “the first holiday,” a reference to the anniversary of the revolt. The group, which now dominates Egypt’s new parliament, chose to celebrate rather than protest and was scorned by the youth activists who had rallied by the tens of thousands to go to the square.

“This is a revolution, not a party,” the young demonstrators chanted.

In the center of the square, a makeshift obelisk bore names of protesters killed under Mubarak’s rule and military rule. Near the Egyptian Museum, where dozens of people were detained and beaten by the military last year, Mahmoud Hassan, 24, stood silently holding a sign.

“I am the martyr. Why did you let my rights go?” it said. On his shirt a sticker read, “Oh country, here the martyr is thrown in the garbage.”

“Today is not a day to celebrate,” Hassan said. “We have to avenge the martyrs, and the military council must go back to their barracks.”

Hope and confidence

Activists say they hope the country’s first democratically elected parliament, which was seated Monday, will demand justice for those killed in the past year and also force the military rulers from power. So far, no senior officials have been convicted in the killings of protesters.

Still, the scene at the square Wednesday differed from that of a year ago in two key respects — the relative lack of violence and the sense of confidence. There were gropings in the crowd and Twitter reports of a woman being assaulted and thugs attacking some protesters, but there was no police presence, no tear gas, no gunfire and no state-sponsored violence. And people spoke freely about politics, justice and their feelings — whether of love or hate — about the generals.

“Today, people feel the country belongs to them,” said Engy Hamdy, of the April 6 youth movement, a principal organizer of last year’s revolt. “Last time, they were afraid. They still didn’t feel as if it was their country. This time they do.”

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

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