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