Tens of thousands of Egyptians packed shoulder to shoulder into Cairo's Tahrir Square on Wednesday to mark the one-year anniversary of the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Some, particularly Islamist supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the ultra-Islamist Salafis' Nour party, came out to celebrate their victories after a year of political discovery.
Between them, the Islamist parties won a combined 72% of available seats in the lower house of parliament in the country's first democratic election in more than a half century. "We are here to celebrate what we've achieved, and reiterate what we haven't achieved," said Mohamed Abdel Ghafar, a 40-year-old teacher sporting a Freedom and Justice Party hat. "We achieved the elections and the ousting of Mubarak, putting the symbols of corruption on trial, setting a date for the transition of authority, and lifting the emergency law," he added. Nearby, a speaker on the Brotherhood's stage trumpeted congratulations to Egypt's heroes that would be everyone who came out to help overthrow the president.
But thousands of those on Tahrir Square, Wednesday, also came out to protest. While many express satisfactin with the election result, frustration over economic woes, endemic corruption, and the slow pace of reform has deepened in the year since Mubarak's fall. The focus of much of that anger has been the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the junta that took over from Mubarak last February and has shown little interest in ceding complete executive authority to a civilian government.
Men, women, and families thronged beneath banners demanding an end to military rule and justice for those killed and injured by security forces during the uprising and protests since. Liberal youth activists even chanted for the execution of SCAF chief Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, hoisting posters depicting faces of Mubarak officials, as well as Tantawi and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.
"We believe that SCAF lost its legitimacy in August and now it's ruling the country with force," said Mohamed al-Essawy, 24, who held a large stencil depicting the faces of Tantawi and the Brotherhood's speaker of parliament hovering over bodies of slain activists. "They're playing chess with the revolution," he explained. "Anything supervised by SCAF is illegitimate, ranging from the parliament to the constitution."
Liberals, youth activists, and political analysts have increasingly alleged that a conspiracy exists between the Brotherhood and the junta, pointing to the former's seeming compliance with military-drafted rules and declarations. However, the majority of Egyptians seem to disagree.
On January 24th, Tantawi announced the termination of the country's emergency law on national television, in a move aimed at currying favor with the protesters ahead of the one year anniversary of the uprising. For Brotherhood supporters, and many others in Tahrir on Wednesday, the concession seemed like an additional victory. But an exemption decreed by Tantawi, which allows the emergency law's provisions to be applied in cases of "thuggery", had human rights groups crying foul the imprecise term has been widely used by the military to prosecute activists over the past year. Human Rights Watch warned that the exception would "invite abuse."
Demonstrators poured into the downtown square throughout the day, many marching the same routes they had taken a year ago to start the historic rebellion. That day was fraught with tension and violence, as protesters broke through police lines and braved volleys of tear gas, astounded and emboldened by the power of their collective action. There were no police lines to cross to get to Tahrir for the anniversary event, and the crowd was far larger this time than it had been a year ago. But nostalgia ran high. Tahrir pulsed with the national pride that had characterized the 18-days that brought down Mubarak. And the crowd's diversity stirred the familiar debate and exchange of ideas that many Egyptians had reveled in a year ago, as men and women from across the country and its social classes first camped in the square, united by the common goal of ousting Mubarak.
"We were not divided back then," remembered Mohamed Farghaly, a university student. "On January 25th 2011, we were unified. We came down to call for the fall of the regime, and at the time, we thought that Mubarak was the regime," he said. "Then we found out that he wasn't." Farghaly admits that his realization hasn't been shared by everyone. "The majority is staying at home," he added, claiming they had been swayed by the "liars" on state TV. "That's the division, and it's one of the biggest challenges."
Indeed, how the numbers fall on either side of that division will impact Tahrir's dynamic in the days ahead. Already, many say they will camp in the square as long as it takes to force the military from power. Some have predicted a repeat of the violent clashes between protesters and security forces that characterized a series of demonstrations in November and December, particularly if large numbers remain in Tahrir and the military moves to clear it. "Some of the people think that we need to stay until SCAF leaves," said one Brotherhood supporter, Mohamed Said. "As Muslim Brotherhood, we don't believe that. We are here to deliver a message." That doesn't mean the revolution is over, he added, but Egyptians can make their voices heard in other ways.
With reporting by Sharaf al-Hourani / Cairo