CAIRO – Tens of thousands of Egyptians rallied Wednesday to mark the first anniversary of the country’s 2011 uprising, with liberals and Islamists gathering on different sides of Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a reflection of the deep political divides that emerged in the year since the downfall of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.
Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and their liberal and secular rivals differ over the goals of the revolution and the strategy to achieve them, in particular the relationship with the country’s interim military leaders.
Military generals led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi took over from Mubarak when he stepped down on Feb. 11, 2011. The ousted president is now on trial for his life on charges of complicity in the killing of hundreds of protesters during the uprising.
Volunteers from the Brotherhood, a fundamentalist group that won just under half of parliament’s seats in recent elections, were checking IDs and conducting searches of the thousands flocking to join the protests.
Other Brotherhood followers formed a human chain around a large podium set up overnight by the group. The Brotherhood loyalists were chanting religious songs and shouting, “Allahu Akbar,” or God is great.
In contrast, liberals on the other side of the square were chanting, “Down, down with military rule,” and demanding that Tantawi, Mubarak’s defence minister for nearly 20 years, be executed.
“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.
Fahmy was among several thousand protesters led by pro-reform leader Mohamed ElBaradei who were marching toward Tahrir Square from a neighbourhood on the west bank of the river Nile. Several other marches were proceeding toward Tahrir, raising the possibility of a massive turnout at the square.
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.
There were no army troops or police in Tahrir Square, birthplace of the 18-day, anti-Mubarak uprising that began on Jan. 25, 2011.
Liberal and left-leaning groups behind Mubarak’s ouster say that, except for putting Mubarak on trial, 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 is the largest single bloc in the new, 508-seat parliament, which held its inaugural session on Monday. The group’s supporters have mostly stayed away from recent protests demanding the military immediately step down, arguing that it was time for elections rather than street protests.
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.
“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,” said Attiya.
The Brotherhood’s election win came in the nation’s freest election in decades, held in stages over a six-week period starting Nov. 28. Another Islamist group, the ultraconservative Salafis, won about a quarter of the seats, while liberals and independents could only garner under 10 per cent of the seats.
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 on trumped-up charges.
“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.”