Thousands rally to press Egypt's leaders for change

McClatchy NewspapersMay 27, 2011 

Loza Atallah, 48, holds a poster memorializing her 22-year-old son, Mena Nabil, who was shot and killed during the 18-day uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February.

HANNAH ALLAM/MCT

CAIRO — Their reasons for coming were varied, but the goal was the same for thousands of Egyptians who rallied Friday in Cairo's Tahrir Square: to remind the country's interim military rulers that they'd promised to steer Egypt on a more democratic path after ousting President Hosni Mubarak from power.

Khaled Abdelgawad, whose family of nine lives in a single room under a staircase, came to demand the creation of jobs and a fairer distribution of public wealth.

Mohamed Anani, a lab technician, took a 16-hour bus ride from the southern city of Aswan to add his voice to those demanding the full prosecutions of former regime officials.

Hala Sami, a young nurse, said she was demonstrating against the use of military courts to prosecute civilians.

Organizers called the event a "second revolution," and protesters demanded faster, more transparent reforms to move Egypt beyond the authoritarianism of the last several decades.

"Democracy means being a partner in the government!" a speaker yelled through a microphone to the cheering crowd. "We won't let anyone take that freedom from us!"

The estimated 10,000 people who gathered were nowhere near the million-strong crowd organizers had hoped for, but were still more than many Egyptians had expected, given obstacles such as bad weather, a boycott by the Muslim Brotherhood and widespread anticipation of violence from pro-regime thugs.

There's also a general "protest fatigue," a feeling expressed by many Egyptians who want to see an end to the unrest and the return of "stability."

That word, stability, "istikrar" in Arabic, has become a mantra for Egyptians who've grown anxious about so many changes taking place so quickly. The economy is in shambles, the crime rate is soaring, a security vacuum persists and the military rulers are struggling to satisfy the demands of rival factions.

Is this the time, many skeptical Egyptians ask, for more disruptive and potentially violent demonstrations?

"We're calling for a stable system, and anyone who accuses us of otherwise doesn't understand the demands!" yelled one unidentified speaker who took the stage to challenge the notion that the only people still in Tahrir Square are provocateurs.

"Freedom! Freedom!" the crowd chanted in response.

The ruling military council launched a multifaceted campaign to keep people home in the days before the rally. It first offered concessions, releasing detained protesters, announcing criminal charges against Mubarak and his sons, and declaring that it would permanently open the Rafah border crossing into the Gaza Strip, beginning Saturday.

When it became clear the event still had traction, the council took a different route, rounding up people who were hanging political posters and issuing an ominous warning that it wouldn't send forces to protect the crowds, which it said were vulnerable to attack from "suspicious elements."

An earlier statement from the council called the rally the work of "foreign elements" that sought to weaken the military, "the linchpin of Egypt's safety and security in this important phase."

"It was hilarious. They were saying all these outsiders would come, and I get here and found it's all Egyptians, of course," said Reda Mohamed, 33, a painter and singer who came from Alexandria.

Many of those who attended had taken precautions in case of violence. Some families left their children home, and several people said they'd worn shoes they could run in. By nightfall, when activists urged people to go home, there had been no major reports of violence and no coordinated attack on the square.

Sami, 24, the nurse concerned about military trials, said she'd dressed with clashes in mind. Her hair was swept back in a bun, she wore no jewelry and her loose clothes and sneakers were suitable for a quick escape. She said the risk was worth it to make the military understand that people weren't universally pleased with its performance since the 18-day uprising.

"They're acting like they're with the people, but they're just looking out for their own interests," Sami said. "Why are they putting us to military trials? Mubarak was commander in chief; he, if anybody, should be the one going to military trial."

While the generals have few friends among the Tahrir Square crowd, the vast majority of Egyptians still trust the military, according to results released this month from a Pew survey on Egyptian attitudes since the uprising. Eighty-eight percent of respondents said the military had been a "good influence" on Egypt's progress, while 90 percent gave favorable ratings to the military council chief, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the poll found.

Amer Alwakeel, coordinator of the Egyptian Rebels Coalition, a group of 500 revolutionary activists, said it was important to keep god relations with the military. But he, too, was disappointed with some of the council's recent actions, such as enacting new laws governing political activity without input from the public.

"That reminds us of the old regime," Alwakeel said. "We need them to get rid of the old regime's thinking."

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions boycotted Friday's protest, saying that further mass demonstrations would only divide Egyptians and detract from important preparations for parliamentary elections scheduled for September.

Some Islamists defied the boycott and joined the crowds, including the youth movement within the Brotherhood, a handful of literalist Salafis and other self-described Islamists who don't belong to organizations. They appeared reluctant to talk about the Brotherhood's decision to skip the rally or whether it might cost the group political capital.

"You'd have to ask them," an Islamist veterinarian, Usama Tantawi, demurred.

When he was asked about his reasons for coming, however, Tantawi stood taller, adopted a statesmanlike air and spoke in a loud voice as if addressing thousands. He began a tirade about corrupt governors who belonged to the former regime.

Whether drawn by his voice, or his bushy beard and cropped robe — common Islamist dress — a small crowd gathered around Tantawi.

"The revolution is not yet complete. Egypt is still not for the Egyptians," Tantawi half-shouted, as bystanders snickered at his posturing. "In Egypt, there are two kinds of people: patriots and traitors!"

"Don't forget to talk about the constitution!" one man chimed in from the crowd.

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