Thursday, January 26, 2012

Egyptians Show Mix of Jubilation, Anger to Mark Anniversary

JANUARY 26, 2012

Egyptians Show Mix of Jubilation, Anger to Mark Anniversary

Rallies Reflect Country's Rifts Since Regime Was Toppled

Wall Street Journal

Demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Wednesday carried an obelisk bearing the names of people who were killed during the conflict that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

CAIRO—Egyptians took to the streets on Wednesday to mark the one-year anniversary of the uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak's 30-year dictatorship, amid deepening concern that bitter political divisions and a troubled economy have deflated Egypt's once heady revolutionary hopes.

Hundreds of thousands joined rallies in cities across the country. In Cairo, processions clogged the streets, wending their way from every corner of the sprawling capital toward the city's central Tahrir Square, the cradle of January's uprising. Some jubilantly celebrated the revolution. Others angrily denounced the continuation of military rule.

The demonstrations underscored how much has changed in Egypt over the past year. Last January, those protests were met by armies of truncheon-wielding riot police, who fired live ammunition at protesters. On Wednesday, those police were nowhere to be seen.

Wednesday's demonstration also reflected a stark change in popular protests, which took on a dramatically more Islamist complexion from earlier events that were dominated by mostly secular youth groups.

Cairo residents took to the streets Wednesday to celebrate the first anniversary of the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. But strong tensions remain over the direction of the country.

The largest Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, holds 47% of the country's newly elected Parliament, which held its inaugural session on Monday, and the more hard-line Islamist Salafi movement holds an additional quarter of the seats.

During last year's uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood only threw its support behind protesters days into the uprising. On Wednesday, they were far and away the dominant force.

The hand-in-hand unity that last January bound the country's divided political forces together has long since evaporated.

On Wednesday, the country's Islamist and secular forces congregated on opposite sides of Tahrir Square. In some cases, they directed their protests chants at each other.

The two political camps disagree over how best to manage the country's transition to democratic rule. The Muslim Brotherhood has proved far more willing to compromise with the ruling military than many of the secular and liberal activists, who accuse the Brotherhood of betraying the revolution's democratic objectives for their own short-term political gain.

"The Brotherhood didn't support us when we made the revolution and today they have taken over the square and left no room for us," said Hala Mustapha, a member of the liberal Social Democratic Party. "They don't care about the revolution."

In contrast, Mohammed al-Ghazzar, a 30-year-old demonstrator from the Brotherhood, said he had faith the military would fulfill its pledge to hand over power after presidential elections in June.

"We trust the military," said Mr. Ghazzar. "The majority of Egyptians trust the military."

Wednesday's demonstrations also stood as a reminder of what hasn't changed in the past year. Many protesters shouted the same angry chants on Wednesday as they did one year ago, this time calling for the ouster of the ruling military rather than Mr. Mubarak.

They accuse the military of perpetuating many of the same abuses of power as Mr. Mubarak's regime did and doubt it intends to cede power to a democratically elected civilian ruler.

Some pointed to a report published Wednesday by the press watchdog Reporters Without Borders that said freedom of the press is worse in Egypt today than it was under Mr. Mubarak, who is now on trial accused of murder and corruption. In its annual index of global press freedoms, the group dropped Egypt's ranking 39 places, to 166 from 127 last year.

Egypt has been tense in the days leading up to the anniversary, as the country waited to see whether Wednesday's demonstrations would fizzle after one day of celebration or explode into another spasm of violent clashes between protesters and security forces, as some recent protests have.

In November, a one-day protest against military rule sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties seemed to end peacefully at sunset. But a crackdown by police the following morning on a few dozen stragglers who remained in the square kicked off days of violent clashes that paralyzed downtown Cairo and left close to 80 protesters dead.

The Muslim Brotherhood vowed to pull its ranks from the square at the end of the day, satisfied to continue its struggle inside the halls of a Parliament it now dominates. But many other protesters promised to stay, setting the stage for another possible showdown with security forces.

Egypt's ruling military council also appears to be nervous that Wednesday's demonstrations could still snowball into violent unrest. The day's demonstrations appeared to draw more Egyptians into the street than any popular protest since Mr. Mubarak gave up power on Feb. 11.

Police and army were absent from the square, but not far away. They hunkered down a few blocks outside the square, behind recently erected concrete barriers, meant to protect the Ministry of Interior against angry demonstrators.

State media had repeatedly warned the public of a foreign-financed plot to undermine Egypt on Wednesday—rhetoric activists say was designed to frighten Egyptians away from street demonstrations. Activists also said security forces appeared to step up arrest raids against antimilitary activists in recent days.

"The police haven't changed and the rules haven't changed," said Yousuf Al-Badi, a protester in an antimilitary march on Wednesday. He said his brother Mohsen had been arrested on Tuesday night after police stormed the family's home and confiscated computers, CDs, and personal papers.

"We're still afraid," Mr. Badi said.

The country's top general, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, offered a pair of concessions to protesters on the eve of the anniversary demonstrations. On Saturday, the military said it would release and pardon nearly 2,000 prisoners who had been convicted in military trials.

Among those released was a Coptic Christian blogger who in March was convicted of insulting the military and sentenced to two years in prison by a military tribunal after he wrote a blog post titled "The army and the people were never one hand." The military says 1,443 prisoners from military trials remain in custody, but rights activists say the actual number is likely higher.

On Monday, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi declared an end to the country's draconian emergency law, which has long been a top priority of democracy activists in Egypt. But he also said the law would remain in effect in cases of "thuggery."

Activists have been planning for weeks for the anniversary celebrations. They've drawn up and distributed elaborate maps for protesters to know the routes of various marches in the city. Others have been in workshops for weeks constructing massive protest puppets and masks, poking fun at the country's military rulers, or commemorating those who died in protests.

Write to Charles Levinson at and Matt Bradley at

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