Tens of thousands of Egyptians poured into the capital’s Tahrir Square, many to protest against the ruling generals, others to celebrate the anniversary of the start of the uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
“I took part in the revolution a year ago and had high hopes that change would be swift,” said Ahmed al-Keelani, a 41-year-old hotel worker who came with his wife and two daughters to Tahrir Square. “Instead, we got stuck in a drawn-out plan that kept the military council in power.”
The ruling generals, who took over after Mubarak’s ouster, have issued a mixture of warnings and promises in recent weeks aimed at the two sides, cautioning against “foreign hands” and “third parties” fomenting unrest while pledging to release prisoners and partially lift the country’s state of emergency, which extends the powers of the police.
Protesters accuse the army of mismanaging the country’s transition and using tactics similar to Mubarak’s government to stifle dissent. Dozens have been killed in clashes between demonstrators and security forces in the past three months. Seven weeks of elections, in which Islamist groups took almost three-quarters of the seats in parliament, have failed to quiet activists organizing the anti-military rallies.
“There may be hundreds of thousands in the streets, but the impact won’t be as powerful,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, ahead of the anniversary. “The majority either has strong faith in the parliament or have had enough with street protests.”
In the Mohandeseen neighborhood of Cairo, a group of protestors interrupted a performance by an armed forces band with chants of “Down with military rule.”
“What are you celebrating?” Ashraf el-Abyad, a 32-year-old interior designer asked clapping bystanders as he held up a rag soaked in blood that he said he found after clashes during the uprising last January. “Are you celebrating this?”
“Enough! Have some mercy on this country. It was the army that protected your revolution,” Mona Ramadan, 42, shot back. “Do you want to destroy the country?”
Protests and rallies were also being held in cities throughout Egypt, including Alexandria and Suez.
The army council pledged Jan. 21 to release 1,959 prisoners convicted by military courts since the beginning of last year. This decision, as well as the suspension of the emergency law, was unlikely to affect the public mood, Hamid said. “It doesn’t change anything fundamental. Those who are against the army remain against and those who are supportive still support it.”
The ruling generals have said they will cede authority once there is an elected president and a new constitution. Egypt’s elected assembly, which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom & Justice party, held its inaugural session Jan. 23. One of its first tasks is to select a committee that will write the new constitution. The army has said presidential elections will be held by the end of June.
In a poll of Egyptians released today by Gallup Middle East & Africa, based in Abu Dhabi, 86 percent of people said they planned to vote in presidential elections but a majority said they didn’t know for whom. Amre Moussa, the former head of the Arab League, led the poll with 17 percent of votes.
The newly formed parliament also demanded the creation of a fact-finding committee to investigate violence during the protests of the past year. At least 846 people were killed during the revolt that led to Mubarak’s departure last February.
The unrest has deterred tourists and foreign investors and curbed economic growth to 1.8 percent in the fiscal year through June, the slowest pace in at least a decade. Tourist arrivals fell 33 percent last year, while international reserves are at the lowest level since March 2005.
Egypt formally requested a $3.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund on Jan. 16 to support the economy.