Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Crowds of several hundred thousands teemed in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Wednesday to mark the first anniversary of Egypt's 2011 uprising, with liberals and Islamists in a competition over the course of the revolution, reflecting the deep political divides since the downfall of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.
Liberal and secular groups marched into the square calling for continued protests and street power against the ruling generals who took power after Mubarak's ouster. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, in contrast, pressed a message that the revolution had succeeded, the time for protests is over and now Egyptians needed to rally behind the new parliament that they dominate.
Military generals led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi took over from Mubarak when he stepped down on Feb. 11, 2011. Revolutionaries accuse them of perpetuating Mubarak's authoritarian system, saying that even though Egypt has held its freest election in decades, it is not changing the roots of the dictatorship.
The Brotherhood, in contrast, has been the biggest beneficiaries of the military's handling of the transition. Elections held over the past two months gave them just under half of parliament's seats, making them the country's predominant political bloc. More radical Islamists, the Salafis, won a quarter of the seats.
The Islamists made a forceful show Wednesday in Tahrir, which was the symbolic heart of the 18-day wave of protests against Mubarak that began Jan. 25, 2011. A large Brotherhood podium blared speeches through 10 loudspeakers to the crowds, with one speaker proclaiming that Egyptians must defend their countries against "enemies" who want to strike Islam.
Brotherhood loyalists were chanting religious songs and shouting, "Allahu Akbar," or God is great. The group, whose cadres are known as the most disciplined in Egypt's politics, largely claimed the job of policing security in the square, checking IDs and searching the bags of those flocking to join the rally.
In contrast, liberals on the other side of the square chanted, "Down, down with military rule," and demanding that Tantawi, Mubarak's defense minister for nearly 20 years, be executed for the deaths of protesters killed in crackdowns against their movement in recent months.
"Tantawi, come and kill more revolutionaries, we want your execution," they chanted, alluding to the more than 80 protesters killed by army troops since October. Thousands of civilians, many of them protesters, have been hauled before military tribunals for trial since Mubarak's ouster.
"We are not here to celebrate. We are here to bring down military rule. They have failed the revolution and met none of its goals," said Iman Fahmy, a 27-year-old pharmacist who wore a paper eye-patch in solidarity with protesters shot in the eye by security forces during recent protests.
Among many, there was a suspicion that the Brotherhood is more interested in power through parliament than in real reform and therefore willing to accommodate the military's influence, a charge the fundamentalist group denies. One poster in the square proclaimed, "A message to the brotherhood: The revolutionaries love the square more than they love the parliament."
Both sides were intent on drumming out as many supporters as possible to show their weight. Dozens of buses were parked outside the square after bringing in Brotherhood backers from the provinces.
Liberals and leftists, in turn, streamed into the square in large marches of tens of thousands from different parts of the city. One was led by pro-reform leader Mohamed ElBaradei, in a swarm of people walking to to the somber beat of drums to mark the deaths of protesters the past year — and to underline that this was not a day of celebration, given the many unrealized demands of the revolution.
In many of the marches, they wore wore masks depicting the faces of slain protesters, chanting, "Down with military rule."
Unlike many of the demonstrators, ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace laureate, said that the immediate return of the military to the barracks was not a top priority.
"I don't think that is the issue right now. What we need to agree on is how to exactly achieve the revolution's goals starting by putting down a proper democratic constitution, fixing the economy, security and independent judiciary and media and making sure the people who have killed those people are prosecuted," he told the Associated Press.
Together the two sides packed the downtown square in one of the biggest gatherings since the frenzied celebrations on the night Mubarak fell. There were no army troops or police in Tahrir, a sign the military was looking to avoid an eruption of new clashes after bloody violence between the two sides in November and December.
Liberal and left-leaning groups behind Mubarak's ouster say the generals have left the old regime largely in place. They say that the Brotherhood has tacitly accepted this, concentrating its efforts on winning parliamentary seats rather than working for the realization of the uprising's goals — social justice, democracy and freedom.
"You have the parliament, the marshal (Tantawi) is in power and the revolutionaries are in prison," a man shouted at a Brotherhood supporter carrying the blue flag of the group's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.
The Brotherhood has largely stayed out of anti-military protests in recent months and focused on the election campaign. The new, 508-seat parliament held its inaugural session on Monday, with a Brotherhood leader sworn in as speaker. Liberals and independents garnered under 10% of the seats.
But the liberal and leftist groups maintain that the revolution must continue until remnants of Mubarak's 29-year regime are removed from public life and government, and until those responsible for the killing of protesters are brought to justice. Mubarak himself is on trial, along with his former security chief and several other security officers, on charges of killing protesters. Mubarak and his two sons are also on trial for corruption.
"I am not here to celebrate. I am here for a second revolution," said Attiya Mohammed Attiya, a 35-year-old father of four children who is unemployed. "The military council is made of remnants of the Mubarak regime. We will only succeed when we remove them from power."
As evening fell, there were signs the two sides in the square were trying to ease any tension. Several speakers on the Brotherhood stage underlined the need for the military to hand over power to civilians as it has promised to do by the end of June.
Ismail Badawi, a 55-year-old Brotherhood backer, said he was determined to see the military leave power, but that parliament is the force able to ensure they do so, not the street. "Parliament is the voice of the nation. And when people say their word no one can stand in their way," he said. "We are here to support the parliament."
"A confrontation will come, but when the military tries to determine who will be president," he said, referring to fears the ruling generals will try to push through their own candidate in presidential elections due by the end of June. "The brotherhood will go down (to the street) when it is time."
The Brotherhood was outlawed for most of the 84 years since its inception, subjected to repeated crackdowns by successive governments. Under Mubarak, hundreds of them were jailed.
"We are the political force that paid the heaviest price," said Alaa Mohammed, a teacher and Brotherhood supporter. "Thanks to the military council, we had the cleanest elections ever, and the military protected the revolution."
The ruling generals have declared Jan. 25 a national holiday to mark the occasion. Previously, Jan. 25 was Police Day, an occasion selected by pro-reform groups to launch their uprising a year ago, in part to protest decades of institutional torture and abuse by the hated police force. Also to mark the occasion, Tantawi partially lifted decades-old emergency laws that gave police far reaching powers. He also decreed the release of hundreds of civilians convicted and sentenced to jail terms by military tribunals.