Egyptians celebrate, protest a year after uprising

Thousands gather in Tahrir on anniversary of revolt; some want new uprising, others celebration.

January 26, 2012 02:06
4 minute read.
Protester throw a stones at riot police in Cairo

Egyptian protesters in Cairo 311. (photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Tens of thousands massed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other Egyptian cities on Wednesday, a year after an uprising erupted that toppled Hosni Mubarak and exposed rifts in the Arab world’s most populous state.

One group of mostly youths in Tahrir stood near a street where protesters clashed in November and December with police and the army, chanting “Down with military rule” and “Revolution until victory, revolution in all of Egypt’s streets.”

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On the other side of Tahrir, supporters of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists grouped to celebrate. “I’m very happy with the anniversary of January 25. We never dreamed of this.

The revolution’s victory was reaped with the elected parliament,” said Khaled Mohamed, 41, a member of the Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) secured the biggest bloc in parliament after the first free vote in decades.

A member of the Brotherhood’s party now sits on the speaker’s chair, an idea unimaginable a year ago when the lower house was a compliant, rubber-stamp body stuffed full of Mubarak’s supporters. The assembly also has a strong contingent of ultraconservative Salafi Muslims.

Protesters mistrust the military council that took charge on February 11 last year when Mubarak was driven out and which is led by the man who was his defense minister for two decades, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. The army has vowed to relinquish power after a presidential poll in June.

Some liberal activists fear the Brotherhood and other Islamists are colluding with the army to entrench their position in mainstream politics at the expense of a deeper purge of the old order.

Islamists dismiss talk of any such alliance.

The United States, a close ally of Egypt under Mubarak, praised “several historic milestones in its transition to democracy” this week, including the convening of parliament.

“While many challenges remain, Egypt has come a long way in the past year, and we hope that all Egyptians will commemorate this anniversary with the spirit of peace and unity that prevailed last January,” a White House statement said.

US President Barack Obama plans to accelerate the pace of American aid to Egypt, a top State Department official said on Wednesday.

Undersecretary of State Robert Hormats, part of a US delegation that held unprecedented talks last week with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, said Washington wanted to provide “more immediate benefits” to Egyptians.

Under the plan, some non-urgent US aid slated for other countries – he did not name them – would be redirected to Egypt. Funding in the pipeline for long-term programs in Egypt would be shifted to quick-impact projects, he said.

Hormats, speaking to Reuters on the sidelines of the annual World Economic Forum, emphasized that the White House had not made any final decisions, and that he was providing Washington’s “broad thinking” on the subject.

The slow pace of change also frustrates some Islamists.

Last year, when the Egyptian army was first ordered onto the streets after days of clashes with police during the uprising, the troops were hailed and cheered. Many Egyptians have since watched in horror as soldiers have dragged, beaten and fired tear gas at demonstrators demanding the army return to its barracks.

The activists in Egypt point to a surge in military trials of civilians and the use of violence against protesters as signs of autocratic ways similar to three decades under Mubarak.

Tantawi defended the military during a televised speech on Tuesday.

“The nation and the armed forces had one aim: For Egypt to become a democratic state,” he said.

Along with demonstrations in Cairo, Egyptians also gathered in Alexandria and in Suez, the scene of some of the fiercest violence during the revolt and also the place where the first death was reported during the uprising.

“We didn’t come out to celebrate. We came out to protest against the military council and to tell it to leave power immediately and hand over power to civilians,” said Mohamed Ismail, 27, in Suez, a port city east of Cairo.

There were no official numbers for Wednesday’s turnout.

But some witness estimates put the number in Tahrir at 150,000 or more, although there was a constant flow of people in and out of the square. Thousands were also out in other areas of Cairo.

Demands for justice for the “martyrs of the revolution” was a unifying call for everyone on Wednesday. Banners with pictures of those killed were hung from lampposts in Tahrir.

Many are angry that no one has yet been found responsible for the deaths of 850 people during the uprising as the trial of Mubarak, his interior minister and others officials continues.

“Martyrs, sleep and rest. We will complete the struggle,” chanted protesters in Alexandria.

But friction between rival ideas about where Egypt is headed was not far below the surface, even late on Tuesday as people began congregating in Tahrir.

“The military council is Mubarak,” said Amr al- Zamlout, a 31-year-old protester clutching a sign declaring that “there is no change” and stating his aim was to topple the army rulers.

Mohamed Othman, an accountant, stopped to say Egypt needed stability for economic recovery not more protests.

“The council will leave power in any case. Sure, the revolution is incomplete, but it doesn’t mean we should obstruct life,” he said, touching off a row among the crowd that gathered around.

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