Reinvigorating Egypt's Revolution?

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Scenes from the largest Cairo protest since the February ouster of President Hosni Mubarak

Adly Mubarak poster.JPG

Thanassis Cambanis

CAIRO, Egypt -- Friday's "Day of Determination" (or "Day of Persistence") continued overnight and into Saturday as a sit-in in Tahrir Square. It was the largest since President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, and it marked a sort of inflection point for the popular uprising that began on January 25.

For the first time since mid-February, the crowd filled the entire square, and drew scores of regular folk who wouldn't normally define themselves as political activists. The demonstration swelled to revolutionary size, to a large extent, because its organizers consciously eschewed politics.  Instead they resorted to a lowest-common denominator appeal to prosecute Hosni Mubarak and his henchmen. Justice for the crimes of the past, and for the crimes that continue, including police brutality, unaccountable government, and military detentions of protesters. Two words echoed above all: justice, and revenge.

That simple call galvanized the protest, although to some was its Achilles heel.

"The blood of the martyrs won't be wasted," the crowds chanted. Protesters carried pictures of Hosni Mubarak hanging from a noose (a common motif, also stenciled on walls around Tahrir).

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A performer named Waleed Sheikh held a Mubarak marionette wearing the traditional red Egyptian death row suit, a star of David on the front. "I am manipulating him like he used to manipulate us!" Waleed said as he made the Mubarak doll dance, to the wild applause of onlookers.

Many of those in crowd said they hadn't joined a protest since February, but were galvanized by the ruling junta's foot-dragging on trials for Mubarak cronies and on police reform.

"I thought the government would be purified after the revolution," said chemist Mahmoud Fathy, 29. "They are trying to outsmart the revolution, to outwait us and change nothing."

The protest drew activists and casual supporters of the revolution; Islamists (from Salafi hard-liners to moderate Muslim Brotherhood supporters), liberals, socialists, Marxist fundamentalists, and unaffiliated youth who merely hoped for minimal standards of fairness in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Like the early days of the revolution, Tahrir again echoed with earnest political debate. Two activists from the secular Movement for Freedom and Justice fought loudly over whether to prioritize political organization or bread-and-butter issues of justice and economics. "Free speech isn't everything," Hussein Abdellatif said, enraging his friend Hind Mohammed. Activists from all the major youth movements collaborated on a survey to ascertain the top demands of the demonstrators.

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A Salafist and a Brotherhood member argued over how much to trust the junta, and how vociferously to protest. Mohammed Ali, the 34-year-old Salafist, also had a message for US President Barack Obama.

"We are not just puppets in your hands. Today the people are the ones who will decide our fate," he said. "No matter how much money you spend, the time of the American agents is over. We are not terrorists, we are Muslims."

The Muslim Brotherhood only agreed to take part at the last minute, after youth activists agreed not to mention one of their core political demands, for a new Constitution to precede rather than follow parliamentary elections. At nightfall, the Brotherhood promptly dismantled its stage, the largest of five in the square, and its members trooped home.

The Democracy Report

Their departure barely dented the atmosphere in the square, which resembled a political dance party, which euphoric crowds chanting slogans against Field Marshal Tantawi and the rest of Egypt's old-guard figures.

"We think the Islamists are no longer interested in revolutionary unity," said Basem Kamel, an organizer for the new leftist Egyptian Social Democratic Party. "But we will keep trying."

To some of the activists in the square, July 8 signified a return to the revolutionary ethos that made Tahrir Square a global icon after January 25. But the fact that so far, revolutionaries have few tangible political gains to show since Mubarak's resignation, is real cause for worry. The opposition is fragmented into dozens of parties, and the first demonstration that really filled Tahrir Square in five months had a minimal, apolitical agenda. Who's really against justice, or even revenge?

Many of the people in the square on Friday said the revolution had stalled, or been stonewalled. They wanted to bring it back, even if they expressed wide disagreement about what "it" was.

Amr Shiebl, 24, spent the entire hot day in the square, and by the time the sun set, he was seething. In his view - and he wasn't the only person to express similar discontent - the revolution was hobbled by the competing politics, manifested in the five competing stages, and by the broader apathy of the Egyptian public, which he feared could overwhelm the passionate commitment of the tens of thousands of motivated revolutionaries.

"I'm frustrated. There were too many people talking today. Nobody listens," Shiebl said. There's no real spirit. Nothing has changed."

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Thanassis Cambanis, a columnist at The Boston Globe and a regular contributor to The New York Times, is writing a book about Egypt's revolutionaries. He is a fellow at The Century Foundation, teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com. He is also the author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.

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