Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in cities across Egypt, Wednesday, marking the one year anniversary of the “Lotus Revolution” – the uprising which united Egyptians and forced Hosni Mubarak from power.
However, the mood, while positive, was tempered by fears of enduring military rule, with many demonstrators claiming they were protesting the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), rather than celebrating a successful revolution.
By midday, Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of last year’s uprising, was packed, with huge crowds stretching down the side streets running off the square.
Protesters chanted slogans calling for SCAF’s head, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, to resign. Others called “liar” and “thief” while holding posters depicting Hosni Mubarak standing, humiliated and in his underwear, amid piles of money.
Signs hanging above the square read: “No to military trials, yes to human rights”.
For Shady (a pseudonym), there was little reason to celebrate. The 25-year-old had spent the past 14 months in Egypt’s military and believed SCAF had acted against the revolution.
“The military does not see things the same as the people. They always told us that the people in Tahrir were thugs and thieves who were trying to burn the country down,” Shady said.
SCAF has ruled Egypt since the downfall of Mubarak, defining itself as a safeguard of the revolution. Initially received positively by protesters, support gradually eroded as the military junta began to suppress dissent, using increasingly violent tactics.
“From the beginning of the revolution we had three blank rounds in our guns, the rest was live ammunition,” Shady said.
Since SCAF came to power, 12,000 civilians have been tried in military courts, at a conviction rate of 93 percent; “virginity tests” – examining a woman’s vagina to see whether the hymen is intact – were used against female protesters; and more than 50 protesters were killed during the bloody November and December months, when the military used live ammunition against demonstrators and images of soldiers beating women and stripping off their clothes emerged.
In December, security forces raided 17 NGOs, including the US-government funded National Democratic Institute – established by Madeline Albright, former US secretary of state.
According to Heba Morayef, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Cairo, the raids constituted an “unprecedented” crackdown on civil society.
“The raids were a serious deterioration, particularly as these groups were involved in gathering and publishing information about military abuses,” Morayef said.
“They were unprecedented because they targeted so many NGOs at the same time – this never happened under Mubarak.”
Civil society – a ‘space’ which mediates between the state and the individual – allows for the expression of shared interests, through which citizens can ultimately shape the policies of their nation, or protest abuses. As such, authoritarian regimes often have little time for NGOs performing this function.
“The authorities’ main aim was to intimidate, as investigative judges were already questioning the NGO staff and could easily have asked them to produce evidence or turned up with a search warrant or prosecutor’s order to requisition files.”
According to Morayef, from a human rights perspective, little has changed in Egypt since the military took power.
“Overall there has been no improvement. We have seen a continuation of practices common under the regime, where people are not safe from arbitrary arrest – the arrest of bloggers and people challenging the military, for example – and the use of excessive force, particularly in November and December, when people were killed.”
In Tahrir Square around nightfall, frustration at SCAF’s perceived failure to transfer to civilian rule was evident. Vast numbers of people continued to file into the square, which was already at capacity.
People chanted “leave” and beat drums. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptian flags flittered above the crowds waving them skyward.
Activists read out poetry from makeshift stages. Men called for judicial reform through loudspeakers. The “ultras”, fanatical supporters of Cairo football clubs, screamed “freedom” and slogans translating to: “Continue the revolution”.
Rival political parties set up stages – highlighting deep-seated political fissures that could undermine the efficacy of Egypt’s parliament, sworn in on Monday – and Tahrir Square became a deafening blur of sound, as the competing demands of Egyptians’ filled the square; tensions between secularists and Islamists increased throughout the day.
A Syrian stage was erected, protesting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on demonstrators in parts of Syria. Some people draped the Libyan flag around their shoulders.
Groups gathered outside the state television building and chanted “liars, liars”. In October, 27 protesters, mostly Coptic Christians protesting against the burning of a Church, were killed – some were run down by military vehicles – while marching to the building.
However, many people were not in Tahrir to challenge the military, but rather to celebrate last year’s uprising and whatever tangible democratic gains emerged as a result.
For Mahmood, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and an Imam at a Cairo mosque, change was inevitable. Standing in Tahrir Square with his two young sons, Mahmood said there was a plan for the military to leave.
“They have to do it, because people will not tolerate anything else.”
Talking about recently released election results, Mahmood said: “This was the will and the demands of the people, so we have to respect it.”
“Religion cannot be separated from the state. It gives us the rules to live our lives, to lead a good life. There is a fear of Islam in the West, but this comes from a misunderstanding and false comparisons – which many Muslims have been guilty of propagating.”
Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, attention has focused on the rise of Islamist parties, with speculation that a regressive system of governance would emerge, similar to Saudi Arabia.
However, while there is a strong current of ultra-conservative Islam in Egypt, most Egyptians probably support a civil state inspired by Sharia law, as opposed to a system of rigid theocratic rule – which parliamentary incumbents will be well aware of.
The recent parliamentary elections saw the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) dominate, taking 38 percent of the list vote; while the Salafists – adherents to a literalist, conservative strand of Islamic thought – of the al-Nour Party secured 29 percent of list seats.
However, relations between the two parties remain strained and it would be misleading to characterize a majority of Egypt’s lower house of parliament as dominated by a coherent or homogenous Islamist front. Tensions between al-Nour and the FJP are very real.
The Muslim Brotherhood is organized and enjoys massive support. Whether or not the Brotherhood can move beyond its traditional comfort zone of Islamic proselytizing, instead evolving into a fully-fledged political party pushing through political and economic agenda is something to watch over the coming years. As are any signs that it, and other parties, have cut deals with SCAF – essentially allowing SCAF to continue what many analysts call, “ruling but not governing”.
Regardless, it seems unlikely that a regressive system of governance will emerge. And there are far more pressing issues for parliamentary incumbents to address than whether or not women should wear bikinis.
Food prices continue to rise and the budget deficit ballooned from LE 98 billion to LE 130 billion. Foreign reserves have nosedived as the tourism industry splutters along and capital leaves Cairo, raising the likelihood that the Egyptian Pound – already bottoming-out against the dollar – will be devalued, potentially jeopardizing government subsidies on basic necessities, a lifeline for many Egyptians.
According to the World Bank, 22 percent of Egyptians live at or below the poverty line. Workplace corruption and income inequalities are chronic. Youth unemployment is a major source of frustration as opportunities fail to materialize for at least 25 percent of Egypt’s young, often qualified, workers.
As night set-in, fireworks boomed out above Tahrir Square. The smell of popcorn lingered in the air as street vendors sold nuts and chai tea, corn on the cob and popcorn. People stood atop lampposts, waving Egyptian flags.
Horns blared out as people chanted: “Down the Military.”
One man waved the flag used in Egypt when the country gained conditional independence from Britain in 1923 — green, with a crescent and three stars, which survived for around 30 years.
“This is about celebrating a time before the military took power in Egypt,” he said, referring to the years before Mohammed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser led the 1952 Free Officers Coup and forced King Farouk to abdicate.
A 70-year-old man, Mohammed – with thinning, grey hair – said the military had ruled Egypt for 60 years.
“Mubarak is paying the price for all the military has done to our country,” he said.
“The problem is that they have controlled the country all this time. First with Nasser, then [Anwar] Sadat and then Mubarak.”
A woman, Emi, talked of how, when the military was deployed on Day 4 of last year’s insurgency, she felt proud because the military would support the people; and then of her gradual realization that SCAF and the people were not “one hand”.
“They are there to protect themselves and their friend, Hosni Mubarak,” she said.
“They need to meet out basic demands. If there is justice and equality for everyone, then I will have hope.”