Once More to Tahrir
On a hot summer day, Egypt's revolution grinds on.
CAIRO — Under a baking hot Egyptian afternoon sun, old women in full face veils mingle with teenage boys in designer jeans. Coptic Christians stand next to conservative Muslims, chanting together that they want freedom. Factory workers from the Nile Delta sit in tents, reading pamphlets passed out by web-savvy activists. The whole country is watching. On a Friday 147 days after Hosni Mubarak resigned from Egypt’s presidency, tens of thousands of Egyptians are again taking to downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square to pressure their government to listen to their demands for change. Many are saying they will not leave the square until their demands are met. Meanwhile, other cities around Egypt are seeing similar protests.
If the scene is reminiscent of last winter’s dramatic three-week uprising — scorching heat aside — it is not by coincidence. July 8’s protest is an extension of the revolution, which many Egyptians believe has not yet been brought to fruition. The feeling has been reinforced in recent weeks by the perception that justice is not being served for dozens of corrupt officials who ran the country and then ordered the killing of protesters during the uprising. "Revolution First," reads a common protest sign in Tahrir.
"They don’t care about change," Mohamed Said, a young electrical engineer, said of the military junta that now runs the country, as we stood in one of the square’s few shady spots. "They just care about holding the situation together. But if we pressure them, they will respond."
During the 18 days that captured the world’s attention, demonstrators around Egypt chanted what is now the iconic slogan of the Arab Spring: "The people demand the removal of the regime."
Five months later, the regime’s figurehead is gone and some changes have occurred, but many here believe that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is happy to keep most of the characteristics of the regime in place, from university presidents with ties to Mubarak’s corrupt National Democratic Party to a new foreign minister who was a longtime Mubarak sycophant to continuing censorship of the media.
With everyone from trade unionists to ultraconservative Salafists participating in the protest, a single, unified list of demands is hard to find. In a statement released on July 4, the Coalition of Youth of the Revolution, which speaks for some revolutionaries, announced a list of ambitious demands that included economic concerns — like raising the minimum wage and increasing spending on health care and education — in addition to demands for political change, like cracking down on corruption and prosecuting police officers who violated human rights. When the Muslim Brotherhood announced its participation, the group dropped its economic and political demands and focused on reform of the security forces.
That might not be a problem. "I don’t think we need to have a particular focus," Alaa Abd El Fattah, a prominent Egyptian blogger and longtime anti-regime activist, told me. "We are returning back to the slogan about the fall of the regime. Initially, when we toppled Mubarak, we felt that the rest of the job would be easy. Now it is obvious that the regime is regrouping and the SCAF has finally chosen a side," i.e., the regime’s.
Euphoria followed Mubarak’s resignation on Feb. 11, but since then the pace of change has been slow. In March, the much-despised domestic torture and spying apparatus was officially dissolved, but many of its ranking members kept their jobs — the institution was simply rebranded under old management. In April, Mubarak’s ruling party was disbanded, but many of its cronies maintain their positions in influential institutions and some party members are regrouping and forming new political parties. Mubarak and his sons have been detained for investigation on charges of corruption and killing protesters. The two sons are in jail, but Mubarak is said to be in a hospital in the Sinai resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh. (The ex-president allegedly had a heart attack after the investigation began in April. His defense lawyers claimed last month that he has cancer.) Many doubt he will ever stand trial.
The past few weeks have seen a surge of frustrations for pro-change Egyptians.
The most worrying issue has been a trend of postponements and acquittals in trials of former regime officials. On June 26, the trial of Habib el-Adly, the former interior minister responsible for the domestic security services and one of the most hated figures in the deposed regime, was postponed until late July. On Tuesday, July 5, a criminal court acquitted two former Mubarak-era ministers on corruption charges. A day later, seven police officers accused of killing protesters in January in the canal city of Suez — seen in Egypt as the beating heart of the revolution — were released on bail, prompting violent clashes between the families of murdered protesters and security forces.
"The judgment is slow, and that’s not what we need right now," said Mohamed Mohsen, a middle-age employee at an import-export company, attending the protest. "We are in a revolution. A revolution demands speedy judgment and special judgment."
Previous major protests have been preceded by concessions from the SCAF and the government. This time the concession came too little too late. On Thursday evening, just hours before the protests were set to begin and after some had already set up their tents, the interim interior minister announced that later this month there will be a major shake-up at the ministry, with hundreds of police officers to be fired. That’s barely a beginning, though. "Reform begins when those who were implicated in torture, murder, and corruption stand serious trials," Fattah, the blogger, said.
The issue of justice for the families of those killed in the uprising, who are widely venerated and considered martyrs, has helped push frustration to the surface. On June 28, amid somewhat confusing circumstances, relatives of the martyrs clashed with the Interior Ministry’s security forces. More anti-regime forces arrived for the fight and a downtown battle of projectiles (rocks and glass bottles from the protesters; tear gas and, according to human rights organizations, live fire from the police) lasted for more than 12 hours.
"It’s the martyrs that brought people here today," Said, the electrical engineer, told me. "If this were a protest just about the Constitution, it would be very different."
Expectations for Friday were high. "May God protect the youth tomorrow who are fighting for justice for the martyrs," Shaaban Hassan Al Magali, an elderly man who works odd jobs in downtown Cairo, said to me the day before the protests. "This is our country, and there must be justice for those who died for it."
By Thursday afternoon, the small tent city that has been in the square since the clashes on June 28 had doubled in size. Over the past few days the area in and around Tahrir Square had seen an explosion of graffiti that reads "Take to the streets on July 8: The revolution is still on."
But not everyone in Egypt is happy about a continuing revolution. "There are too many protests. Every week they are in Tahrir, and no one even knows why," said Gameel Ali, who runs a small vegetable stand in downtown Cairo not far from the square. Ali says that when there are protests he has no business.
That sentiment is fairly common. Many Egyptians believe that ongoing political uncertainty contributes to the country’s current economic hardships, an argument that the state-run media, on which many Egyptians still rely for news, has eagerly promoted. Over the past few days, a previously unknown group calling itself the People’s Committee to Defend Egypt has been passing out fliers in subway stations and at busy street corners arguing that protesters against the military are destroying Egypt.
But the protesters don’t necessarily need a majority of Egyptians to join them in the street in order to have their message heard by the SCAF and the interim government. According to a poll conducted this spring by the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, only 11 percent of Egyptians participated in the 18-day uprising. But they were still able to topple a president who had been in power for 30 years.
Friday’s demonstration suggests that the street can still put pressure on the SCAF. "The Egyptian revolution is now going through a critical moment, a real fork in the road. It can either win and accomplish its goals or (heavens forbid), it can also lose, leaving the old regime to return in a slightly different form," Alaa Al Aswany, a bestselling novelist and respected public intellectual, wrote in a recent op-ed. "Only those who made the revolution can protect it."