Thousands of Egyptians turned up at Tahrir Square on Friday for a day of protests that participants had hoped would lead to an open-ended sit-in to protest recent moves by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). It quickly became apparent, however, that the hoped-for turnout would not be forthcoming.
A number of soundstages were set up throughout the square, one of the largest of which was that of Salafist presidential contender Hazem Salah Abou-Ismail. Except for another stage erected by the moderate Islamist Wasat party, the rest were set up by leftist and revolutionary youth movements.
Throughout the day, chants against the ruling military council - and its practice of trying civilians before military tribunals - reverberated across the now-famous square. "Tell the truth! Will you nominate yourself for the presidency?" demonstrators shouted in reference to SCAF chief Field-Marshal Hussein Tantawi.
Many protesters wore shirts plastered with stickers reading “No to SCAF” and carried signs bearing anti-SCAF slogans. One banner depicted a turtle, reflecting popular frustration with the slow pace of change during the current, post-Mubarak transitional period.
Some participants said they feared the rise of a military regime not dissimilar to that of the ousted president. Others spoke of long-awaited reforms to Egyptian state television, which, they said, had contributed to the murder of peaceful protesters during the 18-day uprising by broadcasting false information.
While some demonstrators suggested staging a protest march to state television headquarters in Cairo’s Maspero district, this ultimately failed to materialise.
By around 4pm, the number of demonstrators began to dwindle noticeably, prompting many participants - who had earlier hoped for a million-man protest - to express their disappointment.
In the early evening, a group of no more than 200 protesters left the square en route to nearby interior ministry headquarters. A second modest group, meanwhile, set out for defence ministry headquarters in Cairo's Abbasia district.
The 6 April youth movement, for its part, discouraged protesters from joining the latter march, saying it would not be held responsible for the actions of those that participated. Some demonstrators expressed concern that a march on the defence ministry would provide authorities with an excuse to use force against protesters.
Most Egyptian political groupings were represented in today’s demonstrations, with the notable exception of the Muslim Brotherhood, widely considered Egypt’s most formidable political force.
Political commentator Amr Hamzawi and presidential hopeful Mohamed Selim El-Awwa both addressed crowds in the square, which, since 25 January has become a symbol of popular resistance to tyranny. Protesters were particularly surprised when Hollywood actor and political activist Sean Penn, waving an Egyptian flag, put in an appearance.