Five months after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Tahrir Square has, once again, been transformed into a mass protest encampment and the epicenter of the struggle for change in Egypt. Thousands of protesters are entering the second week of a sit-in reminiscent of the one that captured the world's attention during the 18-day uprising that began on Jan. 25.
At the heart of the matter is the feeling of many that the basic demands of the revolution have gone unfulfilled, with little indication that a path for real change lies ahead; that the calls for justice and accountability for members of the former regime and security forces accused of killing protesters have gone unanswered; and that the revolutionary demands of "bread, freedom, social justice" have all but been abandoned.
"I'm here because most of our demands have not been met," says Lobna Darwish, a 24-year-old protester who is taking part in the sit-in. Many activists are fed up with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and their handling of Egypt's transitional period following after the ouster of Mubarak.
In Tahrir, protesters have dug in for the long haul. The middle of the square has been converted into a tent city, complete with winding pathways, food stocking centers, and a hairdresser. Electricity has been routed from street lamps to power fans and recharge cell phones. Wi-Fi Internet connections and satellite TV have been set up. Protesters have organized popular committees to protect the entrances, sweep the streets, and make collective decisions about living in the square. To counter the oppressive summer heat, a massive white canopy has been stitched together and strung across the middle garden using scaffolding and rope to provide much-needed shade. Numerous stages have been constructed where speakers lead protest chants and musicians perform. A nightly "Tahrir Cinema" has been organized to screen raw footage, experimental documentaries, and finished films about the revolution. In the evenings, when the weather cools, the crowds swell dramatically, and thousands more gather to join those camping in the square, hold political discussions, and demonstrate.
The sit-in began after issues that have been simmering for the past five months boiled over in the last few weeks, culminating in massive demonstrations across the country on July 8 — the biggest protests since the Supreme Council came to power.
The anger and frustration began to escalate on June 26, when the trial of the much-reviled former interior minister, Habib Al-Adly, and six of his aides was postponed for a second time. The victims' outraged family members gathered outside the courthouse and pelted police vehicles with rocks as they drove away. Two days later, clashes broke out between police and relatives of those killed in the uprising at an event honoring martyrs of the revolution. The clashes quickly spread to the Interior Ministry and Tahrir Square, where thousands of demonstrators had rushed in solidarity, and escalated into the largest street battles between security forces and protesters since Mubarak's fall. Security forces used rubber bullets, birdshot, tear-gas canisters, as well as reportedly live ammunition, in some cases, against the demonstrators and taunted them, some while brandishing swords. Protesters fought back with rocks and Molotov cocktails, and more than 1,000 people were injured. The fierce clashes convinced many that the security apparatus remains unreformed.
"What happened on June 28 was the last straw for me," says Sarah Abdel Rahman, a 23-year-old protester taking part in the sit-in at Tahrir. "We don't have any freedoms. Since the revolution there has been no change."
Less than a week later, clashes erupted at a Cairo courthouse after a judge ordered the release on bail of seven police officers accused of killing 17 protesters and wounding 300 others in the canal city of Suez — widely viewed as the symbolic heart of the revolution. The ruling touched off two days of rioting in Suez, with hundreds of people torching police cars and trying to storm government buildings. Some protesters blocked a highway outside the city, temporarily shutting down transportation to the nearby port while others threatened to shut down the Suez Canal, a primary source of foreign income for Egypt.
Over the past five months, only one policeman has been convicted — in absentia — for the killing of protesters during the revolution, in which nearly 1,000 people were killed. Over the same time period, more than 10,000 civilians have been tried in military courts, where they are routinely denied access to lawyers and family and receive sentences ranging from a few months to five years.
"The Supreme Council has not honored its pledge to bring people to justice," says Ghada Shahbandar, an activist with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "It has no constitutional legitimacy at all. Any legitimacy it has comes from the people, and the people are making their voices heard."
Despite the scale of the July 8 protests and the open sit-in, there was no immediate reaction from the Supreme Council. Instead, in what activists saw as another provocation, the military announced that Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi had sworn in a new minister of information, the Wafd Party's Osama Heikal. The Information Ministry has long been viewed as an integral part of the state propaganda apparatus, and many believed the position, which had not been filled for five months, would remain vacant. Many activists pointed angrily to an editorial Heikal penned on Jan. 24, one day before the revolution began, in which he wrote, "No one wants a clash between people and the regime. What we should understand is that people want change and the quieter those changes come the better this will be for Egypt."
Tags: arab spring, cairo, egypt, egyptian initiative for personal rights, egyptian organization for human rights, elections, essam sharaf, hosni mubarak, hussein tantawi, mansour essawi, mohsen el fangari, mubarak, osama heikal, revolution, supreme council of armed forces, tahrir square, wafd party