Published February 17, 2011
CAIRO – Egyptians thronged again to Tahrir Square on Friday, one week after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, in a sun-splashed victory celebration of dancing, singing and flag-waving — but also serious resolve to pressure the country's military rulers to implement reform.
The military allowed — even encouraged — the celebrations. But it gave its strongest warning yet against a wave of labor strikes that erupted in parallel with the massive anti-government political protests and have hit Egypt's economy hard the past week. In a statement, the military said it would no longer allow "illegal" demonstrations that stop production and will take action against them.
The crowd in downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square appeared to spiral well beyond the quarter-million that massed for the biggest of the anti-Mubarak protests. The rally was called by protest leaders to press their demands on the military to take greater action to remove regime figures who still hold considerable power.
But for many, it was as much a nationalist festival of what has been accomplished as a rally to demand more.
Under brilliant sunshine, giant Egyptian flags were unfurled, and people sought the shade beneath the black, white and red fabric. Parents painted their children's faces with the national colors. Vendors hawked T-shirts praising the "Jan. 25 revolution" — a reference to the date protests began in the square.
Protest leaders told the mass gathering that rallies must go on until the military rulers meet their demands.
Protesters want the army to dissolve the caretaker government headed by Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, which was appointed by Mubarak in his final weeks and contains many of his stalwarts. They also want the lifting of emergency laws that give police near unlimited powers of arrest. So far, the military has not moved on either issue, or on another demand for the release of thousands of political prisoners.
"We'll stay in the square until there is a new government, because there is no way we will see change under a government by the National Democratic Party," proclaimed prominent TV journalist Wael el-Ibrashi, one of the speakers on a stage before the crowd, referring to Mubarak's former ruling party.
Protest organizers have called for weekly protests every Friday, and their ability to keep them going will be a major test of how much they can influence the army.
Prominent Muslim cleric Sheik Youssef el-Qaradawi, who is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, led the crowd in prayers, proclaiming, "The revolution is not over, until we have a new Egypt."
El-Qaradawi's appearance in Cairo's main square marked a dramatic return for the influential cleric, who has mostly lived abroad for decades after being jailed for his anti-government stances. During the protests, he used his weekly TV show on Al-Jazeera to urge Egyptians to join. In the square Friday, he hailed the young protest activists — from a range of ideologies — saying, "They knew that the revolution would win in the end."
In Egypt's second largest city, the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, hundreds of thousands rallied outside a main mosque, then paraded down the seafront boulevard. They shouted for the Shafiq government's removal, using the same chant as protests against Mubarak — "The people want to topple the regime." Soldiers in the streets did not interfere.
In Tahrir, the military seemed eager to encourage a festive, nationalist atmosphere: Soldiers distributed Egyptian flags to families as they streamed into the square. At one point, a military marching band paraded through the square the entertain the partygoers. Army tanks and checkpoints were stationed at entrances to the square, with soldiers checking IDs and bags of those heading in.
The Armed Forces Supreme Council, a body of top generals which forced Mubarak to resign and hand it his powers, has promised a swift transition to an elected government and president — within six months. In the final days of the protests, many in the crowds had pleaded with the army to push Mubarak out.
But in the past week, worries have begun to arise among protest leaders about the military's handling of the transition. Changes to the constitution are being planned behind closed doors by a military-appointed panel. So far, reform leaders have not been given any position of influence in the transition, the Mubarak-appointed government remains in place, and police powers remain intact.
The military the past week has been focused on trying to contain the labor strikes that have flared across the country, starting just before Mubarak's fall and have continued since, striking state industries and government offices. The strikes have forced an extended closure of banks and the stock market, shuttered for around three weeks, and further hurt an economy trying to recover from the turmoil that preceded Mubarak's ouster.
Friday evening, the Armed Forces Supreme Council warned it would "not allow the continuation of these illegal practices because of their severe danger to the nation, and it will confront them and take the legal measures needed to protect the nation's security."
While it acknowledged the demands of "some sectors," it said the strikes and demonstrations by workers were "disrupting (economic) interests, halting the wheels of production and creating difficult economic conditions that could lead to the deterioration of the nation's economy."
It accused some of preventing state workers from reaching their jobs, "increasing losses."
and the military has twice warned Egyptians not to strike. Even so, at least 1,500 employees of the Suez Canal Authority protested for better pay, housing and benefits Thursday in three cities — just one example of workers nationwide using this opportunity to voice long-held grievances.
The military has promised in the past not to take action against the political, anti-government protests in Tahrir, and Friday's statement appeared more directed at strikers. But the tough words could mark growing impatience with the protesters as well.
It was not clear what action the military would take to stop strikes, however. It has said repeatedly during the crisis it will not take actions that harm Egyptians — and a crackdown could hurt its image at a time when its popularity is riding high for removing Mubarak and it is trying to maintain trust in its handling of the transition.
Manal Samir, 49, a pediatrician who brought her two daughters to the Tahrir celebrations, said she had faith in the army for now, "but only for a temporary period." She said her sons had participated in the 18 days of massive protests that led to Mubarak's resignation a week ago, but she and her daughters, aged 12 and 16, hadn't come until now.
"We came to celebrate what the young people did. I want my children to know what happened here, and to learn from it," she said. "Not everything comes at the same time, but I believe we won because Mubarak left and the other demands will be fulfilled in time."
The atmosphere was festive. Vendors hawked T-shirts proclaiming "Jan. 25, the day we changed Egypt," flags, headbands and badges all in the red-black-and-while national colors. Some even sold vuvuzelas, the buzzing horns that became the soundtrack to the World Cup in South Africa last summer.
A monument to those killed in the uprising — at least 365 civilians, according to the Health Ministry — was erected in one area of the vast plaza. Many lay flowers in front of the monument or took photos of the pictures of the dead.
Many said they were focused on continuing to pressure the military.
Mohammed Zuheir, an activist handing out signs, said: "We have one main demand, we want the end of the old regime and a new government that has no people left over from Mubarak's regime."
Asked what the organizers plan was, he pointed at the huge crowd in the square. "That's what we are doing," he said. "We are still concentrating on coming out together as one to get rid of the old regime."
Speaking with a microphone on stage, Mohammed el-Beltagy, a Muslim Brotherhood member prominent in the protests, led the crowd in a call-and-response, shouting, "Can we stop the protests when the government of Ahmed Shafiq is still there?" The crowd roared back, "No, no, no."
In a small counterpoint to the scene at Tahrir Square, scores of Mubarak supporters protested outside a mosque Friday. Demonstrators, many dressed in black, held photos of the ex-president and said they wanted to honor the man who led them for nearly three decades because they felt he had been humiliated by the revolt.
Elsewhere, journalists from at the once pro-Mubarak, state-run Al-Ahram daily gathered in the newspaper building's lobby to prevent chief editor Osama Saraya from leaving the building with three boxes, presumed to contain sensitive documents.
Security guards intervened and confiscated the boxes, reporter Sabah Hamamu said.
Wael Hassan, a 32-year-old dentist who participated in the Cairo protests and witnessed major clashes on Jan. 28, went to Tahrir Square on Friday and captured the anxiety many Egyptians have about the future.
"For me, it's not a celebration," he said. "It's a message to the army and the government that we're still here and we will still protest, that we won't stop until we see a civilian government, not a government appointed by Mubarak himself."
Associated Press Writer Maggie Michael contributed to this story.