Thousands of Egyptians headed to Tahrir Square on Wednesday to mark the first anniversary of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak with some seeking a new revolt against army rule and others celebrating the changes already achieved.
It is a year since protesters inspired by an uprising in Tunisia took to the streets in Egypt and the Jan. 25 anniversary has exposed divisions in the Arab world’s most populous country over the pace of democratic change.
Once the official “Day of the Police”, Jan. 25 has now been declared “Revolution Day” by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took power when Mubarak stepped down last February.
Concerned the generals are obstructing reform to protect their interests, the pro-democracy activists behind the “Jan. 25 revolution” plan marches to Tahrir Square to demand the military council that replaced Mubarak hand power to civilians immediately.
But well-organized Islamist parties which dominated Egypt’s most democratic election since army officers overthrew the king in 1952 are among those who oppose a new uprising.
Signs of friction
Signs of friction were on show as hundreds of people began to congregate in Tahrir Square late on Tuesday, pitching tents in winter rain and hanging the national flag from buildings, according to Reuters.
“The military council is Mubarak,” said Amr al-Zamlout, a 31-year-old protester clutching a sign declaring “there is no change” and stating his aim was to topple the army rulers.
Mohammed Othman, an accountant, stopped to put forward a different view based on the idea that Egypt needs 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. His criticism quickly drew a crowd and touched off an argument.
Grocery stores were unusually busy as shoppers stocked up, reflecting concern at the prospect of a repeat of last year when protests went on for 18 days before Mubarak was forced to step down on Feb. 11.
Protests against the military council turned violent in November and December.
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.
Headed by Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the military council has said it will cede power to an elected president by the end of June, thus completing a democratic transition.
Yet pro-democracy activists doubt their intentions, pointing to a surge in military trials and the use of violence against protesters as signs of autocratic ways familiar from the Mubarak era.
Tantawi, for two decades Mubarak’s defense minister, again defended the military from such accusations during a televised speech on Tuesday. “The nation and the armed forces had one aim: for Egypt to become a democratic state,” he said.
Lifting of state of emergency
In an apparent attempt to appease reformist demands, the military council has in recent days pardoned some 2,000 people convicted in military courts since Mubarak was toppled. On Tuesday it announced a partial lifting of a state of emergency.
But it kept a clause saying emergency laws in place since 1981 would still apply in cases of “thuggery”, a vague term that triggered calls for clarification from Washington and more criticism from human rights groups.
But activists claimed the move was cosmetic, denouncing the use of the term “thuggery” as a way to maintain the police’ wide powers of arrest under the law.
“For all purposes, the state of emergency has not been lifted,” Hossam Bahgat, Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), told AFP.
The activist movement, a coalition of groups united in calls for deeper and faster reform, have been fighting back in the run-up to the anniversary against what they describe as state efforts to present them as foreign-backed trouble makers.
Eager to restore its image after accusations of rights abuses, the military has planned mass celebrations with a naval parade in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, air shows in Cairo and fireworks displays around the country.
The SCAF is also issuing commemorative coins for the occasion and is expected to honor public servants.
It has called on Egyptians to “preserve the spirit of Jan. 25, which united the Egyptian people, men and women, young and old, Muslims and Christians.”
Hijacking the revolution
But activists say the revolution has been hijacked by Tantawi, Mubarak’s longtime defense minister.
“We must take to the streets on Wednesday, not to celebrate a revolution which has not achieved its goals, but to demonstrate peacefully our determination to achieve the objectives of the revolution,” wrote prominent novelist and pro-democracy activist Alaa al-Aswani.
These goals remain to “live in dignity, bring about justice, try the killers of the martyrs and achieve a minimum social justice,” Aswani wrote in the independent daily al-Masry al-Youm.
Protesters want Tantawi and the ruling generals to step down immediately and to stay out of the drafting of the country's new constitution, for fear they may enshrine military powers into the charter.
The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group which won nearly half the seats in the parliament, said last week he was against calls for a new revolt against the military.
“I hope we will go down together to be joyful at what we have accomplished, to guard our Egypt and to complete the demands of the revolution,” Mohammed Badie said in an interview with Egypt’s Dream TV.
“The formation of the parliament is the biggest celebration of the anniversary of the revolution,” the Muslim Brotherhood group said on its website, a day after the lower house convened for the first time since it was dissolved following the uprising.
Leading Muslim Brotherhood member Saad al-Katatni was elected speaker of parliament on Monday, in scenes unthinkable just a year ago when the group was still banned under Mubarak.
Meanwhile, security forces say they are on alert for “any attempts to sabotage” the celebration, a thinly veiled warning to the protesters.
But Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said the police “will not be present in the squares or where large celebrations are taking place” and called instead on political forces to “form popular committees” to secure the streets.
Calls for protecting protesters
Amnesty International said the military rulers must protect protesters and uphold the right to peaceful assembly
“Rather than abandoning the sites of planned demonstrations, the security forces must act responsibly by ensuring that everyone can safely exercise their right to peaceful expression and assembly,” said Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa deputy director, according to AFP.
“In a polarized environment where protesters have been portrayed by some state media and the authorities as trouble makers and as counter-protests are planned on the day, the position of the authorities risks amounting to a dereliction of their duty,” she said.
Meanwhile, Mubarak will watch the anniversary events from a bed in a Cairo military hospital, where he is in custody accused of involvement in the killing of protesters during the uprising that toppled him.
If found guilty, the former president of 30 years could face the death penalty.