Egypt: Huge march defies regime

June 4, 2011
Egyptians march on May 27.

As many as 1 million people gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square and across Egypt on May 27 for a “Friday of Anger”. The huge march showed the revolution that ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak in February has reached a new stage.

The demonstrations were called by left organisations in defiance of Egypt's military rulers — as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and liberal groups that were part of the mass protests against Mubarak in February.

Despite a scare campaign in the official media — and most of the liberal media — aimed at steering people away from the protests, the turnout was huge in Cairo.

In Alexandria, at least 500,000 people marched. Tens of thousands rallied in Suez, Port Said, Mansoura and many other cities.

In Tahrir, the crowd took part in lively discussions about the nature of the revolution, and what should be done about the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military body that has ruled Egypt since Mubarak's ouster.

The spirit of revolution was in the air — the demonstration was reminiscent of Tahrir in the days before Mubarak's fall.

Families of the martyrs and those injured in the uprising spoke at the rallies, and victims of military torture and the regime's tribunals told their stories.

Speaker after speaker said the Supreme Council was trying to contain the masses' demands for democracy and equality, and the revolution must continue.

The struggle is now against the country's military rulers who have refused to grant many of the mass movement's demands. The military regime has sought to demobilise the movement through a combination of some reforms and repression.

In the two weeks before the May 27 rallies, the issue of the planned demonstrations dominated the media and polarised the country.

The Supreme Council issued statements insinuating that some protest organisers intended to foment chaos and civil war.

The media, both official and liberal, mainly toed the line of the Council — many reporters and commentators claimed the protesters were planning an armed uprising, rather than a peaceful demonstration.

Rumors spread that thugs and provocateurs would carry out widespread of acts of vandalism, that banks would close their ATMs, and that Hardee's and Kentucky Fried Chicken would close their Tahrir Square franchises on Friday in anticipation of rioting.

Multinational firms sent emails to employees telling them to avoid going near protest spots.

On the day before the protest, police arrested three activists for distributing leaflets and posters critical of the Supreme Council. They handed them over to the military, which detained them for 12 hours.

The powerful Muslim Brotherhood organisation, whose members took part in the uprising in January and February, opposed the rally.

It issued a statement supporting the Supreme Council. It denounced May 27 organisers as “counterrevolutionary”, and accused them of conspiring against the army.

In Alexandria, Brotherhood supporters launched a red-baiting campaign, distributing thousands of leaflets that accused anyone who would demonstrate against the Supreme Council as being “communists and secularists” — code words for those who would propagate atheism.

Other more hard-line fundamentalist groups — known collectively as Salafists — also declared they would not take part in the demonstration.

But protest organisers also had reasons to feel emboldened after the Supreme Council's concession on the prosecution of Mubarak.

In response to popular pressure, the Supreme Council announced in April that Mubarak would go on trial for corruption and theft. But the council refused to make him stand trial on more serious charges of killing peaceful protesters.

Mubarak was allowed to remain under treatment for a heart condition in a five-star hospital in the posh tourist resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

But the move was widely rejected. As a result, in an unexpected move, Egypt's attorney general announced on May 24 that Mubarak would face trial for conspiring to kill more than 865 people and injure thousands of others during the uprising against his rule.

Organisations frustrated with the council's timidity in placing Mubarak and his entourage on trial began planning protests for May 27.

In the days before the rally, at the same time as arresting three activists, the government adopted a more conciliatory tone toward the protests.

The council announced that it respected the right to peaceful protest and vowed that the military would never open fire on the Egyptian people.

Also, Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf declared that workers' frustration over low wages was legitimate, and that he unconditionally supports peaceful protests.

Organisers of the “Friday of Anger” said they were demanding that the Supreme Council: 1) try Mubarak for murder; 2) end the use of military trials against activists and revolutionaries; 3) abandon its authoritarian monopoly over major issues in the transition to a democratic system; and 4) begin a process of redistributing the country's wealth toward the poor by setting a living minimum wage.

The protests were a huge success and, given the attempts to derail them, a blow to the council and its supporters, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

The rallies were the largest show of force in weeks by left and liberal forces in the country that support a continued struggle for real democracy and social justice.

In the early hours of May 27, young people organised in public safety committees secured the entrances to Tahrir Square — searching people to weed out provocateurs or thugs.

Speaker after speaker declared their opposition to military trials and the “kid gloves” treatment that Mubarak and his cronies have gotten.

The crowd chanted over and over about the Muslim Brotherhood's betrayal: “Where is the Brotherhood? Here is Tahrir!”

The protests all ended peacefully — with thousands expressing their willingness to reoccupy Tahrir in the future if necessary.

The next day, all the newspapers and TV stations had to report on the large size of the turnout and the peaceful nature of the mobilisations.

Millions who were subjected to a week-long campaign of scaremongering discovered that those who organised the rally had the best interests of the revolution at heart.

[Abridged from]

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