Protesters prepared to spend the night in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Wednesday after a massive rally to mark one year since the launch of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, with activists vowing to revive their unfinished revolution.
The day had been labeled a celebration by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that took power when Mubarak was ousted last February.
Several pro-democracy groups in the square announced that they would begin a sit-in until Friday when another rally is planned.
Tens of thousands of Islamists, liberals, leftists and ordinary citizens packed the square, the epicenter of protests that ousted Mubarak, waving flags and bearing banners reflecting the day’s varying messages.
The powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the newly elected parliament, were in Tahrir celebrating one year since Egyptians -- inspired by an uprising in Tunisia -- took to the streets to topple the regime.
But other groups, including pro-democracy movements behind the revolt, insisted they were in the square to reignite their revolution and demand the ouster of the military council that took over when Mubarak quit.
Several marches set off for Tahrir from different parts of Cairo, with the chant of “Down with military rule!” ringing out across the capital.
“We will keep going to Tahrir to push for the goals of the revolution, no matter what,” said Hala Rashad, a 46-year-old chef.
“The military council has done nothing. They are behaving just like the old regime. We have not received our rights and the country is a mess,” she said.
At the entrances to Tahrir, “popular committees” searched protesters after the interior ministry said there would be no police presence in the squares where large celebrations were taking place.
Youths from the Muslim Brotherhood told AFP they were in the square to demonstrate, not celebrate, despite an announcement by the group it would not be pushing for “a second revolution.”
The big question, reflected in the headline of the state-owned weekly Al-Ahram Hebdo, remains “Who will capture the soul of the revolution?”
On Tuesday, Tantawi announced the partial lifting of a hated decades-old emergency law, in an apparent bid to placate protesters, but said the law would still apply to acts of “thuggery.”
Activists called the move cosmetic, denouncing the term “thuggery” as a way to maintain the police’s wide powers of arrest.
“January 25 is the first anniversary of the day when Egyptians stood up together to demand an end to police abuse and the state of emergency,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“It is an insult to all those calling for a return to the rule of law to make excuses to keep this state of emergency, used abusively for so many years, in place,” he said.
The SCAF, which on Wednesday began releasing almost 3,000 prisoners to mark the occasion, called on Egyptians to “preserve the spirit of January 25, which united the Egyptian people, men and women, young and old, Muslims and Christians.”
But protesters say the revolution has been hijacked by Tantawi, Mubarak’s long-time defense minister.
They want him and the ruling generals to step down immediately and to stay out of drafting Egypt’s new constitution, for fear they may enshrine military powers into it.
The military council has vowed to cede power to civilian rule when a president is elected by June.
“Attempts to sabotage”
Security forces say they are on alert for “any attempts to sabotage” the celebration, a thinly veiled warning to protesters.
Amnesty International said the military rulers must protect protesters and uphold the right to peaceful assembly, after the interior minister’s announcement that the police would be withdrawn.
“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, the rights group’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director.
Along with demonstrations in Cairo, Egyptians also gathered in the northern city of Alexandria and in Suez, scene of some of the fiercest violence during the revolt and also the place where the first death was reported during the uprising.
“We didn't come out to celebrate. We came out to protest against the military council and to tell it to leave power immediately and hand over power to civilians,” said Mohamed Ismail, 27, in Suez, a port city east of Cairo.
There were no official numbers for Wednesday's turnout. But some witness estimates put the number in Tahrir at 150,000 or more although there was a constant flow of people in and out of the square. Thousands were also out in other areas of Cairo.
Demands for justice for the “martyrs of the revolution” was a unifying calls for everyone on Wednesday. Banners with pictures of those killed were hung from lamp-posts in Tahrir.
Many are angry that no one has yet been found responsible for the deaths of 850 people during the uprising as the trial of Mubarak, his interior minister and others officials continues.
Mubarak himself will mark the anniversary from a bed in a Cairo military hospital, accused of involvement in the killing of protesters during the uprising.
If found guilty, the former president of 30 years could face the death penalty.