CAIRO (Reuters) - Millions took to the streets to celebrate a new Egypt on Friday, reminding military rulers to keep their promise of a swift transition to democracy after protests swept away autocrat Hosni Mubarak in just 18 days.
On an emotional day that was also a memorial to the 365 people who died in the uprising, many said they would guard promises from the military of elections within six months.
“This is a serious message to the military,” said Mohamed el-Said, 28, who traveled to Cairo from Port Said. He gestured to a colorful sea of people from all walks of life around him who rallied to mark the stepping down of Mubarak a week ago.
“After today, it will be more than obvious to them that if they don’t protect the revolution and respond to the people’s demands, the next time people go down to Tahrir won’t be to celebrate victory, but they will bring their blankets with them like before,” he told Reuters in Tahrir (Liberation) Square.
Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, an influential Qatar-based Egyptian preacher, told worshippers in Tahrir Square that fear had been lifted from Egyptians who had toppled a modern pharaoh through faith and triumphed over sectarianism.
His appearance and the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood show a new-found acceptance of once-forbidden Islamist movements, although religious voices are only some of the many now being heard.
On the diplomatic front, the military rulers, in their first awkward diplomatic exposure, approved the passage of two Iranian naval vessels through the Suez Canal. Israel’s right-wing foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, had said Iran’s plan to send the ships through the canal was “provocative”.
The military, asserting its authority, said it would no longer tolerate strikes that were damaging the economy and national security. Workers in the vast public sector, inspired by the revolt that toppled Mubarak, are seeking better pay and conditions. Some have been demanding their bosses step down.
The revolution in Egypt, a U.S. ally which signed the first Arab peace treaty with Israel, sent tremors through the region. Protests erupted in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Iran and Iraq, taking their cue from Egypt and Tunisia who toppled their leaders.
Jubilant families sang and danced to pop music that blared from boats bobbing in the Nile, others danced and banged drums on the river banks. By evening, it was virtually impossible to move in Tahrir as the party carried on with fireworks and food.
“I call on the Egyptian army to liberate us from the government that Mubarak formed,” Qaradawi told the faithful at noon prayers in Tahrir Square, after which the crowd exploded with cheers and waved national flags in jubilation.
“You are Egyptian — raise your head high,” read one banner, reflecting an outpouring of national pride caused by the revolt.
Egypt’s official state news agency, which before Mubarak’s downfall had largely ignored or played down protests, said on Friday that more than 2 million people were in Tahrir Square.
Such a popular wave of emotion was on a par with the 1970 death of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose speeches gripped and galvanized the Arab world, when mourners flooded the streets of Cairo and Egyptian cities.
The cabinet now in place is largely the same as one that Mubarak, 82, appointed shortly before he stepped down from the presidency. A reshuffle is expected in the next few days.
“We do not want to see these faces linked to corruption and violence and camels, killing people,” said Qaradawi, referring to an assault on pro-democracy protesters during the revolt when pro-Mubarak thugs charged the crowds on horses and camels.
Security officials said Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq would announce ministers making up the new emergency government next week and hoped the reshuffle at the top would help to appease protesters and workers on strike.
Life in Egypt is still far from normal a week after Mubarak’s exit, with troops on the streets, banks and schools closed, workers on strike and further anti-government protests.
The opposition want the release of political prisoners. A security source said 239 political detainees had been released since February 7, state media reported, but it did not say how many remained behind bars.
There were tanks and armored vehicles at the entrances to the sprawling square, which was packed tightly with marchers, bowing simultaneously in prayer joined by red-bereted military police and other uniformed soldiers guarding the area.
Soldiers handed out national flags while a military band played “Egypt My Love” and marchers took photographs of themselves and their families smiling with tank crews alongside their armored vehicles.
About 5,000 people gathered peacefully in another part of Cairo, Mohandisseen, chanting slogans of gratitude to Mubarak and apologies for the way in which he was deposed, saying they supported revolution but objected to Mubarak’s treatment.
“The people want to honor the president,” they chanted, dressed in black as a signal of remorse about the ailing Mubarak, who is in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Banners at the rally said, “Yes to change, no to humiliation.”
The pro-Mubarak demonstrators were encircled by troops for their own safety and to avoid any clashes.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which says it is committed to democracy, is seen as the only truly organized bloc in Egypt and believes it could win up to 30 percent of votes in an election. The Brotherhood also warned of the need to protect gains.
“We urge all noble people ... to guard the revolution and its legitimate demands, and not to leave the chance for opportunists to kidnap it and its accomplishments which, with God’s permission, have begun to bear fruit,” said the Brotherhood’s leader Mohamed Badie, just ahead of the march.
“This is an Egypt that cannot be deceived,” Badie said in his Friday message to followers on the Brotherhood’s website.
Additional reporting by Sarah Mikhail, Edmund Blair, Sherine El Madany, Yasmine Saleh, Shaimaa Fayed, Marwa Awad, Dina Zayed, Tom Pfeiffer, Tom Perry, Patrick Werr, Alexander Dziadosz; Writing by Peter Millership; editing by Ralph Boulton