Egypt: The continued need for popular protest

The overwhelming number of crowds that converged on Tahrir Square is partly due to the vigorous youth efforts.

An overwhelming crowd marched from all corners of Cairo and converged at Tahrir Square on Januray 25, to mark the first anniversary of the Revolution [GALLO/GETTY]

Cairo, Egypt – January 25 of this year, like that of the previous one, came as a surprise to many in Egypt. The overwhelming crowds that marched from all corners of Cairo and converged on Tahrir Square are estimated to be larger than any of those seen over the past year. The dominating chant insisted on an end to military rule, while the list of demands has changed little.

After the fall, clashes that pitted a dwindling number of protesters against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and sustained state media attacks against youth movements, many felt that the causes of the original revolution and its proponents were becoming increasingly isolated. The scenes witnessed at Tahrir Square and throughout the country on January 25 proved the contrary.

A provocative SCAF labelling of the day as a celebration, and rumours of expected military presence at Tahrir left many expecting a clash between small groups of protesters and state forces. Instead, there was no site of celebration, as protesters filled the Square and outlying streets, mourning those who have been killed for the sake of democratic governance and insisting on the completion of their revolution.

While the day may have been unexpected, it was certainly not unplanned. In light of several events over the past four months that left protesters dead and demands unanswered, existing youth movements and newly formed ones actively worked to spread awareness of media fallacies and the continued need for popular protest.

One group, The Military are Liars, created after clashes at Tahrir Square and in front of the Ministry that left dozens of protesters dead in December, publicly screened military abuses of civilian protesters throughout the streets of Egypt.

For the past several weeks, silent protests referred to as Chains were held throughout the country and featured solemn protesters clad with signs, listing the demands of the continued revolution. Masks worn, featuring the young faces of those who were killed for the sake of the Revolution, including Khalid Said, Mina Daniel and Sheikh Emad Effat, prepared by the youth, were ubiquitous on January 25.

Youth efforts

Stickers, posters and chants, elucidating demands have been a year in the making and sent a clear message. The overwhelming number of protesters at Tahrir on January 25 is without a doubt at least partly attributed to such vigorous youth efforts.

The Arab world has become accustomed to concessions, often far from adequate, from a nervous leader on the eve of an expected uprising. January 24 was no exception; Field Marshal Tantawi paid tribute to the Revolution and announced an end to the Emergency Law with a notable exception in the case of “thugs”, a term often used by state media to refer to protesters. While this was indeed one of the key demands of the Revolution, the timing and exception make the concession moot.

A further pledge by SCAF to release 1,900 prisoners tried in military courts, out of approximately 12,000 prisoners of the same fate, was an additional concession deemed inadequate and leaves protesters continuing to insist on a complete end to the military trial of civilians and release of all political prisoners.

“… the Muslim Brotherhood is a politically patient group, one that can be generally categorised as reformist, rather than revolutionary.”

Other events from the past few weeks significantly agitated many in the country. Nobel Prize winner Mohamed El-Baradei’s withdrawal from the presidential election, in protest of the political path that the country treads, has at the very least forced Egyptians to consider the situation more deeply and played a role in re-energising protesters to remain steadfast in their demands.

Statements made by Hosni Mubarak’s defence lawyer, Farid el-Dib, just days before January 25 were especially inciting. El-Dib most notably claimed that Mubarak is still the President of Egypt, since the February speech made by then Vice-President Omar Suleiman only gave the military administrative responsibilities, and that his trial is senseless. For the millions, who participated in and sacrificed for the overthrow of Mubarak, the claims were outrageous.

Further, agitating was a growing realisation that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the elected near-majority in the lower house of parliament through its Freedom and Justice Party, is less concerned with democratic principles than it is with its own political interest.

Drafting new constitution

The opening session of parliament was held on January 23, but negotiations between the MB leadership and the 19-member SCAF are rumoured to have been ongoing since the MB victory became clear. While parliament is granted the authority to choose the 100-member council that will draft the new constitution, the main outline of this constitution is already being discussed by SCAF and the MB.

Key issues, ranging from the presidential-parliamentary structure of the political system, oversight of the military budget, and immunity from prosecution for military leaders, are in the hands of two forces which have little to do with the Revolution and its causes. A mix of disappointment and fear hovers among revolutionaries that SCAF and the MB, both of which hold power as a function of circumstance, will have undue influence on a document intended to be timeless.

The opening session of parliament, however, was greeted with some satisfaction from most. It is hard to forget that over little more than a year ago, the MB had been granted only a single seat in what were clearly fraudulent elections. The elected Speaker of the People’s Assembly, MB figure Saad al-Katatny, had been a protester outside of the last parliament’s sessions and has suffered in prison under the Mubarak regime for his opposition.

The fact remains, however, that the MB is a politically patient group, one that can be generally categorised as reformist, rather than revolutionary. On January 25, the MB maintained a cautious presence at Tahrir, avoiding threats to military rule while not disconcerting the revolutionaries. Their chants included ones relating to regional causes such as the Palestinian plight and were recognisably out of place.

Despite the dozens of MB-sponsored buses carrying supporters from various governorates to the Square, their presence as an underwhelming minority may represent a preliminary indication of needed political adjustments on part of the group.

With the reinvigorating of the Egyptian Revolution and freshly pitched tents at Tahrir Square, the next few days will be crucial in revealing the strength of the protesters. In addition to the oft-heard demands – no constitution to be written under military rule, the fair trial of Hosni Mubarak and all those responsible for the killing of protesters, an end to corruption, and free media – a new demand with growing prevalence, no to the safe exit of SCAF members, will serve to diminish the aspiration of the Council to maximise its power into a hope to exit from the political sphere without facing trial.

Sarah Mousa graduated from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2010, and is a 2010-2011 Fulbright Scholar in Egypt.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.