CAIRO -- Thousands of Egyptians returned to iconic Tahrir Square Saturday to mark the third anniversary of the 2011 uprising that led to the overthrow of then longtime leader Hosni Mubarak and to what people thought then was the promise of political reform.
While the square at times resembled the breathtaking scenes of three years back, when hundreds of thousands crammed every available space for 18 days in a call for change, on Saturday, the square was instead testimony to how much Egyptians now have rejected what they demanded at the same site three years ago.
Then, demonstrators sought the end of police brutality; Saturday, they carried pictures of the interior minister, who’s led a months-long crackdown on political dissidents, and posters depicting Egypt’s new strongman, Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. Many in the square said they were there to urge Sissi to run for president, when presidential elections are scheduled. They were so numerous they often overwhelmed the checkpoint chokepoints where anyone entering the square was searched.
Many said only Sissi would ensure that the goals of the 2011 uprising would be fulfilled. The government crackdown, which has seen hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood killed and thousands detained, was the only way to stability.
“I came here to give Sissi the mandate to become president, to show that we believe no one else can be president,” said Nahla Mohammed Ismail, 33, a housewife as she stood with her children. “My goal is to see the revolutionary goals fulfilled but it will take 10 years.”
The government position on the day’s events was clear. Those who supported the government received police and military protection; those who did not were targeted by them. At least 29 people nationwide were killed as police dispersed unauthorized demonstrations, according to the Egyptian Health Ministry. At least 300 were injured.
Their disdain for possible opponents included journalists, against whom the government has been fomenting a not-very-subtle campaign calling them enemies of the state or members of the Brotherhood, the organization that brought to prominence ousted President Mohammed Morsi. Upon seeing McClatchy journalists, several yelled “al Jazeera,” the satellite news channel that the government claims is pro-Morsi and whose journalists have been jailed. It was a call for the crowds to beat them. The journalists quickly left.
A few blocks away, revolutionaries who’d been behind the protests three years ago did not try to enter Tahrir Square; they would have been attacked by the crowds there.
Instead, they staged their own, much smaller demonstrations. McClatchy reporters saw police disperse two of the demonstrations using bird shot and tear gas. At least two people in those crowds were killed. Deaths were also reported in Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, on the Mediterranean, and Helwan, to Cairo’s south.
Perhaps in a sign of the patina of fear that covers opponents to the current government, women were largely absent from the counter demonstrations, and it was young men who scoured the streets in search of protests to join. At a demonstration outside the headquarters of the Journalists Syndicate just a few blocks from Tahrir Square, demonstrators yelled profanities toward Sissi, the police and Morsi.
They also repeated the chant that defined the square three years ago: “The people demand the fall of the regime.”
But in interviews they conceded that they’d lost the momentum they thought they had three years ago. They could hear the pro-government chants from where they stood. And while those supporting the government had found in Sissi a means to move the country forward, the revolutionaries acknowledged they don’t have an alternative to offer.
Mustafa Maher’s brother, Ahmed, once headed the April 6th Youth Movement that initially called for protests three years ago. Now Ahmed is in prison, serving a three-year sentence for calling for protests last fall. Mustafa Maher said he was “disheartened” that he could not go back to the square.
“Ahmed told me to stay away from the clashes,” Maher, 26, said outside the Journalists Syndicate offices. “But we are here trying to improve our image, which was distorted by the regime.”
Rami Mohammed, 31, studied business but now is unemployed. He said he did not fear for his safety at the demonstration “because it already is in danger” because a military-backed government was in place.
He said it was important to speak up.
“I don’t want Sissi to become president and I don’t the Muslim Brotherhood to come back. Morsi hijacked our revolution. We need a civilian president,” Mohammed said, though he could not name a potential candidate.
He suggested that the revolutionary goals had been lost in the ongoing battle between the government and its opponents: “The problem is nobody is looking out for Egypt’s interests. Everybody is out for themselves,” he said.
Shortly after he spoke, the police moved in with tear gas and bird shot.
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report from Cairo.