It has all the trappings of a circus—tents with guy wires, wagons of fast food, green tea, trinkets and Egyptian flags being hawked to families with small children. The only item missing is the crowd at Tahrir Square on Feb. 11, the anniversary of the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak and the day the protesters have called for a national public strike. A year ago, more than a million Egyptians massed at the square and accomplished what everyone in the world thought impossible: they tossed out the bully who’d been controlling them for 30 years. But now, with Mubarak in a sickbed in jail, and after the first free elections in Egypt’s history and just months before a presidential election, the sun is setting on Tahrir Square and its famous 18-day protest.
Egyptians may well be biding their time, poised to come together again, but like the players in a chess game they are waiting for the government, a.k.a. the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to make the next move. The military had gained their adoration for seemingly supporting the people during the uprising a year ago, but are now the hated remnants of the old regime that continue to rule the country. Still, it’s the diehards and the discontents who are here on Tahrir Square on this anniversary, punching their placards into the air, shouting their slogans, leading the sparse crowd in the old battle cries: “Those who chant will never die,” and, “We will not be quiet.”
Marchers arrive and hoist a leader onto young shoulders, who demands the military get out of the business of governing (even though the rulers have promised to step down after the June presidential elections). Then, like a travelling road show, the marchers move on.
Even though the turnout is sparse, some still express disapproval over the goings-on this sunny Saturday late afternoon. Saliman Mahmoud, who says he’s sixtysomething, is one. “I don’t approve of this. These are not Egyptians, they’re hooligans,” he says. “Last year we protested, now is the time to wait for the parliament to act on the reforms we demanded.” Like many Egyptians, Mahmoud feels, “We need to support the political track now. It’ll take until June when we get a president and then the military has to step down.”
A few hundred metres away, a woman veiled in a black niqab and waving the Egyptian flag doesn’t want to wait any longer. Omyasser, 30, says, “I’m here for the revolution. We Egyptians need a better life. I want respect and rights and justice for the martyrs [who died during the revolution].” Her protest this day is to hasten the departure of the military. “No more chaos, no more thugs,” she says.
Margret Azer, one of only nine women elected to parliament during the general election, says the real reason people aren’t here at the square today is because a public strike is new to Egyptians. “They know it would paralyze production at a time when we are feeling the economic crisis,” she says. “Most people know that we need time to achieve the goals of the revolution.”
Regardless of the party atmosphere among those who have attended the protest, Cairo is ominously tense, as though one vexatious action from either side could bring a catastrophic response. A movement called No To Military Trials is shining a public light on the sins of the generals, who have been accused of authorizing unlawful arrests and detentions, disgraceful virginity tests on women who took part in the revolution, torture and trumped-up trials—some of them held in a kitchen. The group’s leader, Nazly Hussein, says, “No one would talk about this even though it’s against human rights, against the constitution.” But then people heard details from the survivors of these military trials. “Now everyone is with us.”
In fact, one courageous young woman decided to press charges against the soldiers who attacked her. Samira Ibrahim, 25, was dragged out of the square by army forces determined to clear the area last March 9. She was subjected to a brutal virginity test (by a male officer who didn’t know the first thing about medical procedures but was well versed in the art of intimidation, she claims). She was also subjected to electroshock torture and beaten so badly she still carries the marks a year later. Samira pressed charges, won her case in a civil court, and is now seeking justice in a military court. “They wanted to humiliate me,” she says. “I want to make sure they don’t get to do that to anyone ever again.”
Some are calling for an earlier date for the scheduled June presidential elections, to speed up the process of getting rid of the military. Others say the military will try to appease the people, while staying in power. But seasoned Egypt watchers say all bets are off when it comes to the next steps. The Arab street is volatile. Fear is no longer a silencing factor. The people are not afraid and the generals know that well.
A new generation of Egyptians was born in late January 2011. People like professor Hoda Elsadda, a quiet intellectual who teaches Egyptian literature at Cairo University. She had never been politically active before taking to the streets and joining the protest. While many refer to those heady days as the social network revolution or the youth revolution, the people who took part in it say it was neither. “It was the Egyptian people together who did this,” says Elsadda. Young and old, some who had never seen a mobile phone, joined hands with Twitter wizards. Women with their faces fully covered worked alongside secular women. “There is normally a huge gap between the rich and the poor in Egypt,” says Elsadda. “But this was 18 days of solidarity. We shared food and water; we were united by a common cause. It tells you a better future is possible.”
Now they are exhausted. It’s as though all of Cairo is suffering from a hangover. The last year has been euphoric but also painful, dramatic and traumatic, which may explain why most didn’t go to the streets on that anniversary Saturday. “We lost friends, saw some gravely wounded,” explains Hussein. But, she adds, “we have hope. It’s just a matter of time before the military goes.” From the Saturday stragglers at Tahrir Square to many of the Egyptians who stayed at home, freedom and social justice remain their dream. And although they realize this may still take a few years to achieve, together, they say they’ll never withdraw.