Friday, July 8, 2011

'The Revolution First': Tens of thousands in Tahrir demand justice

Surrounded by thousands upon thousands of proud and sweaty Egyptians, I learned today what it’s like to live through a revolution, with all its uncertainty and hope laid bare by the people who brought it about and have experienced its consequences.

Today’s demonstration in Tahrir Square brought together thousands of people calling for the continuation of the revolution and lambasting the slow pace of reforms. Called weeks ago, the protest gained the support of nearly every major political group in Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood and some members of the Salafi Islamist movement. While there definitely weren’t a “million” people there, as originally called for, there were certainly tens of thousands and probably upwards of 100,000.

Mike and I made plans to meet our friend Mohamed on the main street by our apartment building, a few minutes after the end of the communal Friday prayers. After a minute of waiting, all of the sudden we heard chanting and saw a mass of people marching toward us. Mohamed was near the front, and we walked beside him and scores of other Egyptians calling for the downfall of Egypt’s military leader.

We arrived in Tahrir to a festival-like atmosphere, with Egyptians young and old, religious and secular, rich and poor holding up signs demanding speedier trials for Mubarak and his associates, justice for those killed during the January/February uprising, and quicker implementation of reforms. Notably, many people chanted slogans and displayed posters calling for the fall of the current military government, and some reused one of the most popular slogans from earlier this year, “The people want the fall of the regime” – although back then it referred to Mubarak. Photos of some of the hundreds of people who died during the revolution hung throughout the square.

Overall, the demonstration reminded me of a summer music festival. The sun was hot – the mercury hit nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit at one point – which undoubtedly kept numbers down a bit. People who did show up sang patriotic songs and walked between a number of stages gracing the outer edges of the traffic circle. Tons of attendees took out their cell phones to snap photos and take videos of various banners and chants, and people seemed pumped up about the turnout and atmosphere.

In many ways, it appeared like this demonstration, by far the largest and most anticipated since February, aimed to recapture some of the revolutionary spirit from the original 18 days of the uprising. Originally, organizers wanted today’s message to center around the call for the “constitution first” – or, the writing of a constitution before elections take place – but when that received too much backlash they decided its theme would be, “The Revolution First.” Among the protestors’ key demands were the end of military trials for civilians; quicker prosecution of officials from the Mubarak regime and policemen accused of killing civilians earlier this year; and more equitable economic policies. In short, it was a vote of no confidence in the military council ruling the country, and a display of frustration with what many people see as the military’s hijacking of their revolution.

Yet the demonstrator’s exciting, strong show of force belied the uncertainty many people hold for the future. And the diverse chants begged the question of how a people united back in January/February around one demand – Mubarak’s resignation – could now leverage their revolutionary fervor into positive political, social, and economic change, despite the fact that everyone seems to now have different priorities.

It remains to be seen what will come of this protest, and it’s even unclear right now whether a large group will continue their sit-in in Tahrir until justice is had. A lot depends on how the military leaders respond. Based on their past actions, though, I’m not holding out hope that this demonstration will lead to a fundamental change in how the revolution is playing out.

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