One year on Egypt’s revolution is stronger than ever. The turn out for the 25 January rally to commemorate the beginning of Egypt’s revolution has surpassed the most optimistic expectations. It was even larger than those that took place during the 18 days of the initial uprising last year. That makes it probably the largest in Egypt’s history.
One year on, the hunger for change in Egypt remains. It also showed that a huge number of Egyptians still see the street politics, rather than the recently elected parliament, as the main tool for change. This will be a concern for both the generals of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, who currently occupy the position of president, and the Islamist parties who have come to dominate the newly formed parliament.
By the evening of 24 January, despite cold winds and constant drizzle, the numbers in the square had begun to grow as thousands of people joined those permanently camped there. A contingent from the Muslim Brotherhood also arrived, and begun to set up a stage. Aware that many of the mostly young activists who have firmly established Tahrir as their turf, might react angrily to this, their supporters formed a human chain as the construction took place. Some believe the Brotherhood, in their hunger for power, to have sold out on the demands of the revolution and the memory of its martyrs by avoiding conflict with the SCAF and other remnants of the Mubarak era.
By the pre-dawn hours, when I arrived in the square, hoping to take some photos of the Fajr (dawn) prayers, this situation had become quite tense. A few dozen of the thousands of protesters had gathered and were chanting angrily at the cohort from the Brotherhood, who stared back at them, disciplined and steely faced.
This wasn’t the only pre-event tension.
When the prayers did start, I was busy, elsewhere in the square where I had discovered a makeshift prison, in which three young men were being held. Those holding them claimed, and I came also to suspect after speaking with them, that they were "baltagiya". These are thugs — usually registered offenders — who are corralled by the security forces to do the dirty work of Egypt’s ruling elite.
Around these points of friction however, the crowd was generally positive and it continued to grow steadily. By midday the sun was shining and numbers were easily in the hundreds of thousands, but the majority of demonstrators were still yet to arrive.
After the Dhuhr (midday) prayers, marches began in in various suburbs around Cairo. I joined one of the larger marches as it passed through the suburb of Mohandaseen. People waved flags and chanted against the SCAF. They called for the punishment of those who had stolen from and murdered the people of Egypt, and for "bread, freedom and social justice".
Masks were common — though many wore them on the back of their head to leave their faces visible. Some of them were the Guy Fawkes masks often seen at Occupy protests, and associated with the hacktivist group Anonymous, but many more were the faces of those martyred by forces under the control of the SCAF since the fall of Mubarak. A large papier-mâché effigy of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s defence minister and head of the SCAF, bobbed above the crowd.
That the march was huge was obvious, however the true scale was only revealed when, while still more than a kilometre from the square, I ran into an Egyptian journalist friend of mine who told me that the front of the march — which completely filled the four lane road — had already reached Tahrir Square. I couldn’t tell how far behind us the march stretched. As we crossed a bridge over the Nile, leading into the Square, the march began to compress and slow. The Square was already at capacity and newcomers could only enter as others left. What’s more, the Cairo protest was only one of many across Egypt.
As we approached the threshhold of the square a new chant, "This is a revolution, not a party" — it rhymes in Arabic — broke out. This was a sideways jab at the Brotherhood, who had tried to frame their participation in the day as a celebration of the victory of the revolution rather than part of an ongoing struggle for it.
Indeed the overall tone of the day was confrontational rather than conciliatory toward the country’s military rulers. This was a clear sign that while the Islamist forces might have the most support at the ballot box, the loose networks of activists centred around the "revolutionary youth" of Tahrir can still bring greater numbers into the streets.
The euphoria of the day was marred, however, first by the upsetting discovery that the hastily erected Tahrir prison was still in operation, with one of the morning’s inmates still held along with two fresh ones, then later by reports on Twitter of a sexual assault in Tahrir similar to that suffered by journalist Lara Logan and many other women during the initial uprising.
Despite the intrusions of mob justice and sexual violence, two of Egypt’s most endemic social problems, the overwhelming impression of the day was optimism.
For all the failures of Egypt’s transitional military rulers, and the apparent unsuitability of the victors of the first post-Mubarak vote, the future of Egypt remains in safe hands: those of the people.
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