Protesters returned to Egypt’s iconic Tahrir Square on Tuesday for the first time since the military overthrew Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in July, this time to mark the two-year anniversary of one of the deadliest clashes between security forces and demonstrators demanding civilian rule.
Tuesday’s protest was an effort to restart the push for democratic reforms, but with support for the military soaring among Egyptians, the demonstration instead showcased the uphill battle democracy advocates face.
On Nov. 19, 2011, tens of thousands filled every corner of Tahrir Square and neighboring Mohammed Mahmoud Street. At least 42 were killed when the military sought to clear the square. On Tuesday, the crowds were much smaller.
Demonstrators called for the end of an Egypt controlled by the three institutions that have governed this nation for the past six decades – the military, the so-called remnants of the former regime represented by another toppled president, Hosni Mubarak, and the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive organization through which Morsi ascended to the presidency. But once again, the democracy advocates offered no one as an alternative to lead Egypt.
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The ability of those who call for change to spell out only what they don’t want is one reason many Egyptians have turned to the military, the only institution that has a history bringing stability, albeit with brute force. The constant change and instability that characterized Egypt after Mubarak’s resignation in early 2011 has been worse, many feel.
On Tuesday, the protesters chanted the same phrases that they did two years ago and carried coffins bearing the names of those killed then. Friends who found each other in the sparse crowd hugged, making the protest appear as much a reunion between old allies as a call for change. At least five people were arrested and 15 were injured, according to state media.
The revolutionaries acknowledged that they have lost the public support they once enjoyed. Egyptians, they acknowledged, are weary of protests, elections and grand calls for reforms that revolutionaries have failed to deliver. The top revolutionary leader, former International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohammed ElBaradei, fled the country shortly after Morsi’s demise.
Tahrir Square itself, once the very symbol of revolutionary change, now defines the nation’s divisions. Earlier this week, the government erected a memorial in the middle of the square to those killed, including security forces, in the 2011 uprising that led to Mubarak’s fall. On Tuesday, demonstrators sought to bring down the monument, spraying it with red paint and placing a coffin on top, representing the civilians killed by security forces.
“We will never stop asking for our rights,” said Hind Nafaa, 24, a human rights worker. “Just because it didn’t work the first time doesn’t mean we should sit in our homes and do nothing.”
Demonstrators said they’d hoped to sow public doubt about supporting a military that has failed to deliver the kind of economic reform desperately needed in this flailing nation. They also sought to emphasize how, since it ousted Morsi, the military has steadily suppressed freedom of expression and has arrested hundreds of its opponents.
“After Morsi was removed a lot of things that the revolution was against have come back. People are starting to see,” said Azza Abdul Ara, 26, an engineer. The military “is trying to end the revolution.”
Supporters of the military-controlled state sought to hijack the revolutionaries’ demonstration, saying protesters should instead celebrate the 59th birthday – also Tuesday – of Gen. Abdel Fatah el-Sissi, the minister of defense and the country’s strongman. They later called supporters to stay home to avoid clashes.
State television used the occasion to suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than the security forces, was responsible for the deaths of protesters two years ago, announcing that the bullets found in the dead were the same kind as those used by Brotherhood members Aug. 14, when the military broke up a sit-in by Morsi supporters. At least 1,100 people were killed, including about 40 government troops.
The 2011 uprising against Mubarak marked the apex of anti-military animosity. On Nov. 19, 2011, security forces sought to clear the square, sparking fighting that stretched from Tahrir to the nearby Interior Ministry, which had become a symbol of repression because of its oversight of the police.
In a sign of how different the nation is today, Tuesday’s demonstration paused at 6 p.m., when Egypt’s national team faced off against Ghana in a World Cup qualifying match. Protesters turned their attention to several large-screen televisions that had been erected for that purpose, and Egypt went down to defeat, ending its qualifying hopes.
After the game, the protest resumed, until around 9:30 p.m., when security forces fired tear gas to disperse the remaining crowd. By 11:30, security forces had sealed off the square to traffic.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent.