CAIRO (Reuters) - Tens of thousands massed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other Egyptian cities on Wednesday, a year after an uprising erupted that toppled Hosni Mubarak, spurred on revolts across the region and exposed rifts in the Arab world’s most populous state.
United last year by popular anger at Mubarak and his 30-year rule, Egyptians gathering on the January 25 anniversary were in high spirits but divided between activists demanding a swift end to army rule and Islamists celebrating their dramatic change in fortunes after emerging victors in a parliamentary election.
One group of mostly youths in Tahrir stood near a street where protesters clashed in November and December with police and the army, chanting “Down with military rule” and “Revolution until victory, revolution in all of Egypt’s streets.”
With the 83-year-old Mubarak on trial for his life but a new parliament installed this week that is dominated by his Islamist adversaries, some of the youthful activists who turned to the Internet to launch last year’s revolt are disenchanted, weary of army rule but fearful the Islamists may also stifle their hopes.
Protesters mistrust the military council that took charge on February 11 last year when Mubarak was driven out and which is led by the man who was his defense minister for two decades, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. The army has vowed to relinquish power after a presidential poll in June.
On the other side of the packed Tahrir Square, a vast plaza where protesters fought fierce battles with police during the 18-day uprising last year, supporters of the once banned Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists grouped to celebrate.
“I‘m very happy with the anniversary of January 25. We never dreamed of this. The revolution’s victory was reaped with the elected parliament,” said Khaled Mohamed, 41, a member of the Brotherhood whose Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) secured the biggest bloc in parliament after the first free vote in decades.
A member of the Brotherhood’s party now sits on the speaker’s chair, an idea unimaginable a year ago when the lower house was a compliant, rubber-stamp body stuffed full of Mubarak’s supporters. The assembly also has a strong contingent of ultraconservative Salafi Muslims.
However, some liberal activists fear the Brotherhood and other Islamists are colluding with the army to entrench their position in mainstream politics at the expense of a deeper purge of the old order. Islamists dismiss talk of any such alliance.
The United States, a close ally of Egypt under Mubarak, praised “several historic milestones in its transition to democracy” this week, including the convening of parliament.
“While many challenges remain, Egypt has come a long way in the past year, and we hope that all Egyptians will commemorate this anniversary with the spirit of peace and unity that prevailed last January,” a White House statement said.
After decades of stagnation, few imagined big political change possible on the eve of the protests a year ago when Egyptians lived in Mubarak’s tightly controlled police state.
Even when protests erupted with a ferocity that surprised many, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on January 25 last year that Mubarak’s government “is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”
But for many the changes are still not enough. Pro-democracy activists fear the army which provided the nation’s leader for six decades wants to cling to power from behind the scenes even after a president is elected. Some cast envious glances toward Tunisia, whose successful revolt last January inspired the Egyptians and which has now moved directly to civilian rule.
The activists in Egypt point to a surge in military trials of civilians and the use of violence against protesters as signs of autocratic ways similar to three decades under Mubarak.
The slow pace of change also frustrates some Islamists. “When we entered Tahrir Square a year ago, we were united. But then the military council divided us. We must unite again,” said 24-year-old Brotherhood supporter Amr Sayyid.
When the army was ordered onto the streets after days of clashes with police during the uprising, the troops were hailed and cheered. Many Egyptians have since watched in horror as soldiers have dragged, beaten and fired teargas at demonstrators demanding that the army return to its barracks.
Tantawi defended the military during a televised speech on Tuesday: “The nation and the armed forces had one aim: for Egypt to become a democratic state.”
Along with demonstrations in Cairo, Egyptians also gathered in the northern city of Alexandria and in Suez, scene of some of the fiercest violence during the revolt and also the place where the first death was reported during the uprising.
“We didn’t come out to celebrate. We came out to protest against the military council and to tell it to leave power immediately and hand over power to civilians,” said Mohamed Ismail, 27, in Suez, a port city east of Cairo.
There were no official numbers for Wednesday’s turnout. But some witness estimates put the number in Tahrir at 150,000 or more although there was a constant flow of people in and out of the square. Thousands were also out in other areas of Cairo.
Demands for justice for the “martyrs of the revolution” was a unifying calls for everyone on Wednesday. Banners with pictures of those killed were hung from lamp-posts in Tahrir.
Many are angry that no one has yet been found responsible for the deaths of 850 people during the uprising as the trial of Mubarak, his interior minister and others officials continues.
“Martyrs, sleep and rest. We will complete the struggle,” chanted protesters in Alexandria.
But friction between rival ideas about where Egypt is headed was not far below the surface, even late on Tuesday as people began congregating in Tahrir.
“The military council is Mubarak,” said Amr al-Zamlout, a 31-year-old protester clutching a sign declaring “there is no change” and stating his aim was to topple the army rulers.
Mohamed Othman, an accountant, stopped to say Egypt needed stability for economic recovery not more protests: “The council will leave power in any case. Sure, the revolution is incomplete, but it doesn’t mean we should obstruct life,” he said, touching off an row among the crowd that gathered around.
Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Marwa Awad, Dina Zayed, Sherine El Madany and Yasmine Saleh in Cairo and Laura MacInnis in Washington; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Alastair Macdonald