POSTED: 05:17 a.m. HST, Feb 18, 2011
CAIRO — Rivaling the biggest crowds since their pro-democracy revolt began, hundreds of thousands of flag-waving Egyptians packed into central Tahrir Square Friday for a day of celebration to mark the fall of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak a week ago and push their new military rulers to steer the country toward reform.
Protest leaders addressed the sprawling crowd, saying rallies must go on until the military to do more to dismantle Mubarak's regime, which still holds considerable power even after his ousting.
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.
Mohammed el-Beltagy, a Muslim Brotherhood member prominent in the protests, led his audience 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."
At the same time, for many, the gathering was as much a celebration of what has been accomplished by the protests that began Jan. 25 as a rally to demand more.
The military itself seemed eager to encourage a festive, nationalist atmosphere: Soldiers distributed Egyptian flags to families as they streamed into the square to join. At one point, a military marching band paraded through the square the entertain the partygoers. Army tanks and checkpoints were stationed at entrances to Tahrir, with soldiers checking IDs and bags of those heading in.
Manal Samir, 49, a pediatrician who brought her two daughters to the 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 (had done). 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, as organizers hoped it would be to maintain the upbeat spirit of the earlier protests. 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.
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 power or influence in the transition, the Mubarak-apppointed government remains in place, and police powers remain intact.
The military has hinted over the past week that its patience is running out with protests and especially with labor strikes that have spread wildly since the days just before Mubarak's fall.
But far from cracking down, the army's attitude toward Friday's rally could mark a different strategy: Turn the "revolution" into a nationalist event, celebrate it, but then move on.
Friday's rally appeared to far surpass the quarter-million people who packed the largest of the anti-Mubarak demonstrations of the past month.
"We came here because we are excited about Egypt and the revolution," said 48-year-old Ashraf Abdel-Azim, who made his way to the square with his wife, Nadwa, and their 9-year-old son, Ahmed. "We want freedom and change, so we are happy to see it coming."
His wife had prepared a handwritten cardboard sign. "The people want to cleanse the country of corruption," it read.
A monument to those killed in the uprising — the Health Ministry has said at least 365 civilians died — was erected in one area of the vast plaza. Many stopped before the monument, laying flowers or taking pictures of the pictures of those killed.
But many said they were focused on continuing to pressure the military. 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.
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."
Influential Egyptian cleric Sheik Youssef el-Qaradawi led the crowd in prayers, hailing the uprising and saying "the illegitimate can never defeat the truth."
"I congratulate the youth," he said. "They knew that the revolution will win in the end."
"The revolution is not over, until we have a new Egypt," he added.
In a nod to the protests that have erupted around the region in the wake of those in Egypt and Tunisia, el-Qaradawi also warned Arab governments that "the world has developed and the Arab world has changed. Don't stand in front of the Arab people."
In many ways, the ability of organizers to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to rally in Cairo — and for a similar celebration in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria — was meant to send a message to the ruling generals that they should honor their pledge to install a freely elected government within six months.
Already, there are some voices within the youth protest movement questioning the military's commitment to democratic government. They claim that the military has been less than clear so far on its plans.
The atmosphere was festive, as organizers hoped it would be, maintaining the upbeat spirit of the earlier protests. A few vendors even sold vuvuzelas, the buzzing horns that became the soundtrack to the World Cup in South Africa last summer.
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.
While revolution has been good for national pride, it has pounded the Egyptian economy, raising the tension between protesters and their new rulers.
The tourism industry has been hit hard, with many vacationers abandoning trips once political conditions became unstable and sites closed. Egypt plans to reopen heritage sites Sunday, and France's CETO association of tour operators said Friday that it will start sending tourists to Red Sea resorts, Nile River cruises and Lake Nasser starting next Tuesday.
"Tour operators are still evaluating the situation in other areas of the country, notably for the city of Cairo," a CETO statement said.
Banks and the stock market also have been shuttered by the uprising, 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.
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. 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," he said, a reference to the former president's confidants in the transition government.
Associated Press Writer Maggie Michael contributed to this story.