After hundreds of thousands converge on the birthplace of the the Jan 25 revolution, some groups hunker down for open-ended sit-in against military rule
As the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution draws to a close, hundreds of thousands of protesters remain in Tahrir Square, which saw a bigger turnout today than on 11 February of last year – the day that longstanding president Hosni Mubarak stepped down.
Reports suggest that from the marches alone, 300,000 people entered Tahrir, coming from Mostafa Mahmoud Mosque and from Cairo’s Ramses, Ghamra, Shubra and Giza districts.
The Egyptian security forces were noticeably absent. Despite promises that they would participate in Tahrir, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) appeared to have cancelled their proposed celebrations. The black-clad Central Security Forces, who battled protesters in clashes in November and December, also vacated the streets, allowing people to demonstrate unhindered.
However, later in the afternoon, Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri made a speech thanking and commemorating those killed and injured in the revolution. He also thanked Egypt’s newly-elected parliament, the police and the SCAF.
Morale in the square was high. “For those who think the revolution is over, have a look at the streets right now,” said Ahmed, 27, a student, who took part in the Mostafa Mahmoud march.
“It’s very beautiful. Today shows how many people still think there’s much left to be done,” asserted Nasser, 42, a driver who was one of the thousands who had to pause on Qasr Al-Nil Bridge because Tahrir was too full.While people waited on the bridge, protesters recited prayers for the revolution’s fallen.
The Maspero Youth Coalition donated a large wooden obelisk inscribed with the names of slain protesters, which was carried along the march from Shubra. A two-metre long effigy of SCAF chief Hussein Tantawi, meanwhile, was transported during the Mostafa Mahmoud protest.
Although the day remained peaceful, there were nevertheless tensions between those demanding the immediate end of military rule and those who came to the square solely for the anniversary festivities.
Friends and relatives of protesters killed during last year’s January 25 Revolution were reportedly angered by the Muslim Brotherhood, which staged a marriage on its podium in front of Omar Makram Mosque, located adjacent to Tahrir Square, saying that today was not a day to celebrate.
“In the marches, we’re the believers of the revolution, not the celebrators,” said Karim, 32, who works in marketing and made the distinction between the marches and particular groups in the square who see the revolution as having ended. “But I’m optimistic – today has shown that, although there’s still the ruling military council and the parliament, there continues to be street action and individuals protesting for our rights.”
Although the resounding chant was “Down, down with the military regime,” today’s events were unique, with Egyptians’ motivations for visiting the flashpoint square varying widely.
“We’re here to celebrate the fall of the regime and the passing of the year,” said Naglaa, 35, who wore the niqab, or full Islamic face veil. “My friends and I are going to wait until June and trust the SCAF to hand over power; we have no doubts they will do this. We think the demands of the revolution are being met: for example, we just had our first free and open parliamentary elections.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, which said it would vacate the square at 4pm, was still very much in evidence five hours later. The Islamist group had publically distanced itself from anti-SCAF sit-ins in November and December, but were out in full force: their podium continued to lead the festivities, playing patriotic songs.
“The Muslim Brotherhood was pressured by the authorities not to participate in November and December,” claimed Ali, 47, an Imam at a Cairo mosque and member of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, (FJP), which swept recent parliamentary polling. “But now the FJP is here to put pressure on the SCAF to accelerate the transition of power and to speed up Mubarak’s trial.”
Many demonstrators wore masks bearing the likenesses of slain activists such as Khaled Said, Mina Daniel and Sheikh Emad Effat. Others wore “V for Vendetta” masks, in reference to the revolutionary graphic novel and to protest assertions by the Muslim Brotherhood that those who wore them were anarchists.
As the afternoon wore on, one group of marchers set out for Maspero, the Cairo district that is home to Egypt’s State Television building and which last October was the scene of a bloody crackdown by the military on a Coptic-led protest march.
As of 9:30pm, around 500 protesters remained at Maspero, with some calling for a sit-in on Twitter. “Maspero is important for several reasons,” said Nazly, 28, standing outside the media building. “One is that it is a propaganda machine against the revolution and against revolutionaries. It is involved in spreading state lies.”
Some protesters are expected to stay overnight.“We need to stand by – not only tonight, but for the coming two nights, until revolutionary demands are met,” asserted Gamila Ismail, an independent parliamentary candidate who joined the Mostafa Mahmoud march, retracing the route she took one year ago.
The April 6 youth movement and the National Front for Justice and Democracy, for their part, have both announced plans to stage an open-ended sit-in in Tahrir Square. As of press time, however, other revolutionary movements and parties that participated in Wednesday's demonstrations had yet to declare whether or not they would participate.
“I’m not sure, as we head towards Friday, how peaceful it will remain,” Ismail said. “We took the same route today, but this year we’re different – we’re more confident and we expect more. Today was very successful.”