CAIRO: Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have marked the first anniversary of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak with rallies in major squares across Egypt that turned into a show of strength by secular groups in their competition with the country’s powerful Islamists over demands for an end to military rule.
Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 18 days of protests against Mubarak, was transformed on Wednesday into the focal point of the rivalry between revolutionary activists who want to show they can still mobilize the street and the Muslim Brotherhood, who emerged as Egypt’s dominant political force after a landslide victory in parliament elections.
The secular activists urge continued protests to force the immediate ouster of the generals who took power after Mubarak’s fall, saying they are just as dictatorial as the former president. The activists touted their powerful turnout as a sign they can pressure the Brotherhood, who they fear will accommodate the military in order to ensure their own political dominance.
"I have hope that these marches will be a message to the Brotherhood as much as the military council," said Sahar Abdel-Mohsen, who walked 5 km in a giant march across Cairo to Tahrir.
"We all know even if the Brotherhood are strong, the military council is still stronger … What we all want is an end to military rule," she said.
Both sides were intent on bringing out as many supporters as possible to show their weight in a nation still reeling from the aftershocks of Mubarak’s ouster.
The Islamists got off to a strong start, taking up positions in Tahrir in the morning and claiming the right to police it, with Brotherhood volunteers checking the bags of those entering.
From a large stage with 10 loudspeakers, they blared religious songs and chants of "Allahu Akbar" and set a tone of celebration for what they called the successes of the revolution — particularly the newly elected parliament.
But around a dozen large marches organized by secular groups converged on Tahrir from various parts of the city, chanting "Down, down with military rule!" and filling large boulevards as passers-by joined in along the way. The "non-Islamists" swarmed into the downtown plaza before sunset, jam-packing it to outnumber the Islamists.
Some marched to the sober beat of drums to pay tribute to the hundreds of protesters killed over the past year — by Mubarak’s regime and the military — and to emphasize that this was not a joyous anniversary, with so many demands for democratic reform left unachieved. Many wore masks with pictures of the faces of slain protesters. Once in the square they erected a pharaonic-style wooden obelisk with the names of the "martyrs."
"I am not here to celebrate. I am here for a second revolution," said Attiya Mohammed Attiya, a 35-year-old father of four who is unemployed. "The military council is made of remnants of the Mubarak regime. We will only succeed when we remove them from power."
Together the two sides packed Tahrir in one of the biggest gatherings since the height of the protests against Mubarak and the frenzied celebrations on the night he fell on Feb. 11. There were no army troops or police in Tahrir or at the marches, a sign the military was looking to avoid an eruption of new clashes after deadly violence in October, November and December.
The competition for influence between the secular forces and the Brotherhood centers on the issue of the ruling military, led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s defense minister for 20 years.
The revolutionaries say the generals must surrender power to civilians immediately, accusing them of perpetuating their former mentor’s authoritarian system, bungling the transition and committing large-scale human rights violations. The Brotherhood says the generals should go, but are willing to accept their promise to step down by the end of June.
The revolutionaries, however, have been unable to agree on an alternative plan for the handover.
The Brotherhood and other Islamists have been the biggest beneficiaries of the military’s handling of the transition. Elections held over the past two months gave the Brotherhood just under half the seats in the new parliament that convened Monday, and the ultraconservative Salafis snapped up another quarter. Liberals and left-leaning groups credited with leading the protests that ousted Mubarak garnered less than 10 percent.
In the eyes of the secularists, the Islamists’ triumph underlined their obsession with power after decades of persecution by successive governments, as well as their waning interest in pressing the demands of the "revolution" for real change to dismantle the legacy of 60 years of autocratic rule. Many fear the Brotherhood will compromise with the military, ceding it future political power to seal their dominant status.
"A message to the Brotherhood: The revolutionaries love the square more than they love parliament," read one poster in Tahrir. In one march, a protester shouted: "For those who won in the elections, now is time to mete out justice for those killed."
After the arrival of the secular-led marches, the tone of the Brotherhood speakers slightly changed, trying to cleave closer to the revolutionaries. Earlier in the day, Brotherhood speeches were strongly religious — one speaker proclaimed the need to face Egypt’s "enemies" who aim to strike against Islam. But later, several speakers underlined the need for justice for slain protesters and for the military to hand over power to civilians — issues closer to those of the secular-led marches.
Many of the secular youth groups called for a sit-in in Tahrir for the next days to press their demands. Such overnight sit-ins in the past have been hit by violent security crackdowns. Islamists said they would hold "celebrations" in the square until Friday, though not a sit-in.
Khaled Abol-Naga, a movie actor and protester, said despite the differences, the square was united Wednesday in the desire for an end to military rule. Even the Islamists want this because they don’t want to lose their credibility, he said.
"The pact between the Islamists and the military won’t survive this pressure," he added.
Ismail Badawi, a 55-year-old Brotherhood backer, said he was determined to see the military leave power, but that must be achieved through parliament, not the street.
"Parliament is the voice of the nation," he said. "We are here to support parliament."
"A confrontation will come, when the military tries to determine who will be president," he added, referring to fears the ruling generals will try to push through their own candidate in presidential elections due by the end of June.
"The Brotherhood will go down (to the street) when it is time."
The secular-led marches attracted a broad cross-section of society, similar to the biggest days of the anti-Mubarak protests. Young people, university students, middle-class men and women joined the processions.
"Tantawi, come and kill more revolutionaries, we want your execution," they chanted, alluding to the more than 80 protesters killed by army troops since October. Thousands of civilians have been hauled before military tribunals for trial since Mubarak’s ouster.
"Don’t mess with the people," others chanted. "Go, field marshal."
Pro-reform leader Mohammed ElBaradei participated in prayers at a mosque with one group of marchers before the procession set off toward Tahrir.
Unlike many of the demonstrators, ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said that the immediate return of the military to the barracks was not the main issue.
Instead, he told The Associated Press the focus should be on "the revolution’s goals" — drafting "a proper constitution," fixing the economy, establishing independent media and courts and prosecuting those who killed protesters.
Emad El-Hadidi, a 66-year-old pharmacist, watched from the sidewalk as the marchers went by, chanting, "Bread, freedom and social justice."
El-Hadidi said the activists were too hurried and should give the military time to hand over power. But he also admired the protesters, his eyes tearing up because he felt he was too old join them.
"We are a generation brought up with fear," he said.