Marking the first anniversary of the January 25, 2011 revolution, Egyptians recall memory of martyrs in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, governorates

Splits in demands between support for military council’s role and calls for handing over powers to People’s Assembly

Field Marshal Tantawi ends emergency law, addresses nation

Muslim Brotherhood’s leading member Saad al-Katatni elected parliament speaker

Hundreds of thousands of people marched Wednesday into al-Tahrir Square to mark the first anniversary of Egypt’s revolution, as many shouted their outrage at the military council that took over after Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president in February.

The crowds divided roughly into opposing factions in the square, which was the focal point of protests during the 18-day revolution that began on Jan. 25 last year.

Supporters of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the new parliament that convened Monday, say the revolution has succeeded and the time for protests has passed.

In another part of the square, liberal and secular groups, which largely propelled the Egyptian revolution, accused the military council of perpetuating Mubarak’s authoritarian rule.

The square was so packed by 3 p.m. that people who tried to enter it had to detour to adjacent open spaces. The scene was reminiscent of the crowds that turned out to celebrate when Mubarak resigned.

Countless people wore yellow stickers that read: “No to a constitution with a military junta in charge.” They held photographs of demonstrators killed in protests against Mubarak or against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

On the backs of their heads, many protesters wore masks of Ahmad Harara, a blinded demonstrator who has become a symbol of Egypt’s unrest.

A 31-year-old dentist, Harara lost one eye when security forces shot him with a rubber bullet in a January protest against Mubarak. He lost his other eye to a rubber bullet in a November protest against the military council.

Hundreds of shouting Egyptians flanked two 50-foot-long Egyptian flags as they crossed the Qasr al-Nile Bridge toward Tahrir Square.

“This is a revolution, not a celebration,” a massive group chanted as it entered the square.

Once hailed as the protectors of the revolution, the military council, led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, is accused of cracking down violently against protesters and arresting thousands without due process under the infamous emergency law.

More than 840 people were killed in the revolution against Mubarak, and about 100 have died in protests against the military council.

The emergency law, in force since President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, gives authorities the power to detain suspects without charges and try them before special security courts without appeal.

“We basically replaced one Hosni Mubarak with 19 Hosni Mubaraks,” said U.S.-Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy, referring to the 19 members of the military council. “So the revolution continues until we are completely free.”

During a protest in November, security forces arrested Tahawy and held her for 12 hours. Her left arm and right hand were broken, and she was sexually assaulted.

At an International Press Gathering last week, foreign journalists came to hear remarks by a few Egyptian counterparts about what to expect on January 25th, the first anniversary of one of the most reported revolutions in recent history.

The nervous joke passing between the crisply dressed Americans and Europeans was that if the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, currently running the country, wanted to get rid of negative coverage in one fell swoop, all it would take is a well placed bomb here, in a warehouse hidden among the downtown blocks.

Amid the stark concrete walls, a handful of influential Egyptian journalists and editors described what they thought might happen when big numbers return to Tahrir next week.

"I think it will pass quietly," former Aljazeera bureau chief Amr el-Kahky said. Hisham Qassem, an oft-quoted source in American articles about Egypt and a lifetime newspaperman-dissident, looked out over the expectant faces and said, "In the past, I was the revolutionary at these kinds of things. Now, I'm going to be a wet blanket."

"I don't think very much is going to happen," he continued, explaining that contrary to many versions of the story, he believes that the military deployed last January not to help the protesters topple the Mubarak regime, but actually to save it.

When they realized that the regime, in fact, could not be saved, they pushed the leader out of power to save themselves and got stuck running the country.

And then, Qassem argued, "the media took this on as a revolution," and "raised the expectations," when in fact a regime change, a real revolution was, and is, far from over.

The media focused on young, camera-friendly revolutionaries and led them to expect instant leadership. "But politics is cruel," he said, filling his role as a wet blanket. "You will find yourselves irrelevant."

That realization has been creeping into the activist community slowly over the past few months, amidst the demoralizing violence of October, November, and December, the dwindling numbers in Tahrir, the electoral sweeps of the Islamists over revolutionary and liberal parties, and the confident power of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

And as these disappointments festered, they led to a wave of disillusion. Novelist and public intellectual Alaa al-Aswany told journalist Robert Fisk, "The biggest mistake of the revolution was that overthrowing Mubarak was too good to be true." A blogger and activist who goes by Zeinobia wrote caustically: "We do not plan. We only react and do not accept criticism and everybody has its own agenda over the country's best interest."

"There is a disconnect between the revolutionaries and the people," wrote blogger and activist Mahmoud Salem, better known by the name Sandmonkey. "Our priorities are a civilian government, the end of corruption, the reform of the police, judiciary, state media and the military, while their priorities are living in peace and putting food on the table."

Perhaps because activists have found formal political channels so cruel, many are organizing renewed protests for a handover of power to civilians on January 25th. They are hoping that memorializing their prior victory will take a forward-looking, and, perhaps for the most optimistic among them, populist turn.

Adding to their fuel, Mohammad ElBaradei, once the presidential candidate for many revolutionaries, has decided not to run believing that to do so would be to give up the dignity of refusing to play a corrupt game.

On Monday, the newly elected People's Assembly met for the first time, to persistent but small marches and the attention of thousands throughout Cairo watching the proceedings on television.

In recent months, a dynamic has emerged in Cairo where anti-SCAF protesters flock to their symbolic home, Tahrir, while pro-SCAF Egyptians fill up a square in the working class neighborhood of Abbasiya, kicking out journalists and westerners and watching Tawfiq Okasha, Egypt's Glenn Beck, accuse Tahrir of bringing the country to ruin. During these competing rallies, many local television channels show a split screen, the irony, of course, being that the two rallies look the same at first glance: the same Egyptian flags, the same fists in the air, the same megaphones, and the same outrage, if differently focused.

On January 25th, the SCAF have signaled that both groups, with a myriad of different demands, hopes, and expectations, will be at Tahrir, meaning that the potential for confrontation is far greater than ever before.

But everyone agrees there are simply too many variables to know what to really expect. After all, nobody admits they predicted that the public suicide of a street vendor in Tunisia would spark mass outrage in Egypt, just as they didn't expect elections to produce huge victories for illiberal Salafi parties.

"I expect people to express anger, but from there everything is possible," said activist Dina Samak to the foreign correspondents in the downtown warehouse. Qassem, the wet blanket, had to admit: "I still don't understand what happened last January."

Egypt's military ruler on Tuesday decreed a partial lifting of the nation's hated emergency laws, an apparent attempt to ease criticism of his policies ahead of the first anniversary of the popular uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi said in a televised address that the draconian laws, in force for more than three decades, would be lifted effective Wednesday but would remain applicable to crimes committed by "thugs." The military has often labeled organizers of anti-government demonstrations "thugs."

Tantawi's decision to partially lift the emergency laws, which give police far-reaching powers, would likely not satisfy rights groups that have been campaigning for their total removal.

Rights groups say at least 12,000 civilians have been tried before military tribunals since the military council took power.

Many of them, they say, were charged with acts of "thuggery" when, in fact, they were protesters.

The term also has been used to ridicule the military in the independent press, and some of the young protesters in recent demonstrations have been chanting, "we are thugs!" At least 80 protesters have been killed by troops since October.

To mark the anniversary, the rulers pledged to release more than 1,900 people who were tried in military courts. The release was set for Wednesday morning.

In another apparent good will gesture, blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad was freed Tuesday. He was arrested in March and sentenced by a military court to three years in prison over his criticism of the military's use of violence against protesters. Tantawi and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces he chairs took power when an 18-day uprising forced Mubarak to step down on Feb. 11, 2011.

To mark the anniversary Wednesday, protesters are expected to take to the streets to call on the military to immediately step down and to demand retribution for hundreds of protesters killed by Mubarak's security forces or at the hands of troops in subsequent clashes.

"I'm here for the rights of martyrs. A year has passed and nothing has changed," protester Mohammed Khalil said he sat in a tent he erected Tuesday night at Tahrir Square, birthplace of the anti-Mubarak uprising and the main venue of Wednesday's protests.

Khalil was one of several thousand protesters who gathered at Tahrir Square Tuesday night, erecting tents and building podiums in preparation for Wednesday's demonstrations.

Tantawi was Mubarak's defense minister for some 20 years, during which he was known to be unquestioningly loyal to the ousted leader. He and the other generals, according to activists, remain beholden to Mubarak, whose approval was essential for their promotion through the ranks.

Mubarak ruled for 29 years, and the emergency laws were in force throughout.

The activists behind Mubarak's ouster accuse the ruling generals of bungling the transition, large scale human rights violations and the use of excessive and sometime deadly force against peaceful protesters.

Last month, video clips showing troops brutally beating protesters and stomping on them while they lay on the ground created an uproar. The images tainted the military's reputation as the nation's chief protector and its most powerful institution.

One video in particular of a woman stripped half naked and beaten and stomped on by troops touched a raw nerve in Egypt's conservative society and prompted a rare protest by women to condemn the military.

For their part, the generals have accused some of the pro-democracy groups of following a "foreign agenda."

On Tuesday, a sullen faced Tantawi, who is in his 70s, renewed past pledges that the military would return to the barracks when power is handed to a civilian administration.

In a bid to deflect criticism of the generals' handling of the nation's affairs, Tantawi said the military council consulted with all political forces and "the revolution's youth" and shared responsibility with three Cabinets through the 11 months it has been in power.

Tantawi also called on critics of the military to think again.

"Surely, everyone who criticized the role of the armed forces and its supreme council at one given time must revise his stand," said Tantawi, who along with other generals consistently denied responsibility for killing protesters or blamed unknown "third parties" for the killings. They have often cited unnamed foreign powers as the source of the nation's troubles over the past year.

Tantawi's address came a day after Egypt's first freely elected parliament in decades held its inaugural session, a significant step in the handover process.

The election for the 508-seat chamber was held over a six-week period starting Nov. 28. The Islamist-dominated legislature's first priority is to name a 100-member panel to draft a new constitution.

The next step would be to put the draft to a vote in a nationwide referendum.

Presidential elections are to be held before the end of June, and the military has said it would return to its barracks when a new president is sworn in.

"The armed forces will be devoted to its role to protect the nation once the transition period ends. It is a role that it has historically endured," Tantawi said.

Egypt's new parliament has elected a speaker from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement whose Freedom and Justice Party won recent elections.

Mohammed Saad al-Katatni was chosen by a large majority of MPs at the inaugural session of the lower chamber, the People's Assembly.

It was the first meeting of the assembly since the uprising last February that forced former President Hosni Mubarak from power.

Mubarak is currently on trial.

Katatni was backed by 399 out of 503 MPs, state media say. "This parliament bears a heavy burden, because it must achieve the people's ambitions," he told Nile News TV before the session began.

"I believe that this parliament will in its first session reach agreement on the rights of martyrs, the injured as well as the poor, who were marginalized under the former regime."

Islamists dominated the elections held for the People's Assembly over the past three months, winning 73% of the seats.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party won 235 seats, the ultra-conservative Salafist Nour Party 121 and the moderate al-Wasat Party 10.

Monday's session was chaired by Mahmoud al-Saqqa of the liberal New Wafd party, who at 81 is the oldest member of the assembly.

He began proceedings by ordering a moment of silence for the 850 people who were killed during the 18-day uprising against Mubarak.

The former leader has been accused of ordering the security forces to shoot protesters during last year's mass protests against his rule.

He could face the death penalty if convicted at his trial in Cairo.

The assembly's inaugural session became briefly chaotic when several MPs made impromptu additions to the text of the oath they were taking, provoking angry calls to order from Saqqa.

The oath ends with a pledge to respect the constitution and law, but one Islamist added "God's law", while two pro-reform MPs promised to "complete the 25 January revolution" and to respect "the rights of its martyrs".

Several independent MPs and others from liberal and secular groups also wore yellow sashes saying: "No to military trials for civilians."

At least 12,000 people have faced military tribunals since the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces assumed the president's powers.

Held over three phases between 28 November and 11 January, the parliamentary elections were considered the freest in Egyptian history.

The People's Assembly's priority is to select a 100-member panel to draft a new constitution that will be put to a referendum before a presidential election in June, when the ruling generals are scheduled to step down.

The BBC's Jon Leyne in Cairo says liberals fear the Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling military council will find a way to share power.

They believe the military may be allowed to maintain its privileges and perhaps be given a veto of a foreign and defense policy, while the Brotherhood may secure greater control over Egyptian society, our correspondent adds.

Liberal and secular parties polled badly, with the New Wafd securing 38 seats, the Egyptian bloc 34 and the Reform and Development Party nine.

The Revolution Continues, a group formed by youth activists behind the uprising that ousted Mubarak, won only seven seats.

The Muslim Brotherhood's leader, Mohammed Badie, said in December the Freedom and Justice Party would form a broad coalition if it won the elections.