- Associated Press
Friday, February 18, 2011

CAIRO (AP) — Rivaling the biggest crowds since their pro-democracy revolt began, flag-waving Egyptians packed into Tahrir Square for a day of prayer and celebration Friday to mark the fall of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak a week ago and to push their new military rulers to steer the country toward reform.

The groups that sparked the 18-day uprising leading to Mr. Mubarak’s downfall called the massive gathering the “Friday of Victory and Continuation,” a name reflecting both their pride in forcing a national leadership change and their worries about the future.

About a quarter-million people marched in the biggest demonstrations of the revolt that began Jan. 25. Free from the threat of retaliation, Friday’s rally rivaled the turnout for those events.

Influential Egyptian cleric Sheik Youssef el-Qaradawi led the crowd in prayers, hailing the uprising and saying “the illegitimate can never defeat the truth.”

“I congratulate the youth,” he said. “They knew that the revolution will win in the end.”

“The revolution is not over, until we have a new Egypt,” he added.

In a nod to the protests that have erupted around the region in the wake of those in Egypt and Tunisia, Sheik el-Qaradawi also warned Arab governments that “the world has developed and the Arab world has changed. Don’t stand in front of the Arab people.”

In many ways, the ability of organizers to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to rally in Cairo — and for a similar celebration in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria — was meant to send a message to the ruling generals that they should honor their pledge to install a freely elected government within six months.

Already, there are some voices within the youth protest movement questioning the military’s commitment to democratic government. They claim that the military has been less than clear so far on its plans.

The military has hinted over the past week that its patience is running out with protests and strikes, but it showed a considerable tolerance toward Friday’s crowd, helping the organizers build the main podium, sending a military band to entertain it and checking the identities of participants.

The atmosphere was festive, as organizers hoped it would be, maintaining the upbeat spirit of the earlier protests. A few vendors even sold vuvuzelas, the buzzing horns that became the soundtrack to the World Cup in South Africa last summer.

“We came here because we are excited about Egypt and the revolution,” said 48-year-old Ashraf Abdel-Azim, who made his way to the square with his wife, Nadwa, and their 9-year-old son, Ahmed. “We want freedom and change, so we are happy to see it coming.”

His wife had prepared a handwritten cardboard sign. “The people want to cleanse the country of corruption,” it read.

The three young children of Nizar Mohammad and his wife, Rasha, were caught up in the patriotic fervor of the moment with Egypt’s red, white and black flag painted on their faces. They carried small flags, too.

“We want our kids to see where all of this happened,” Rasha Mohammad said.

A monument to those killed in the uprising — the Health Ministry has said at least 365 civilians died — was erected in one area of the vast plaza. Many stopped before the monument, laying flowers on the ground or taking pictures of the pictures of those killed.

In a small counterpoint to the scene at Tahrir Square, scores of Mubarak supporters protested outside a mosque Friday. Demonstrators, many dressed in black, held photos of the ex-president and said they wanted to honor the man who led them for nearly three decades because they felt he had been humiliated by the revolt.

While revolution has been good for national pride, it has pounded the Egyptian economy, raising the tension between protesters and their new rulers.

The tourism industry has been hit hard, with many vacationers abandoning trips once political conditions became unstable and sites closed. Egypt plans to reopen heritage sites Sunday, and France’s CETO association of tour operators said Friday that it will start sending tourists to Red Sea resorts, Nile River cruises and Lake Nasser starting next Tuesday.

“Tour operators are still evaluating the situation in other areas of the country, notably for the city of Cairo,” a CETO statement said.

Banks and the stock market also have been shuttered by the uprising, and the military has twice warned Egyptians not to strike. Even so, at least 1,500 employees of the Suez Canal Authority protested for better pay, housing and benefits Thursday in three cities — just one example of workers nationwide using this opportunity to voice long-held grievances.

Wael Hassan, a 32-year-old dentist who participated in the Cairo protests and witnessed major clashes on Jan. 28, went to Tahrir Square on Friday and captured the anxiety many Egyptians have about the future.

“For me, it’s not a celebration. It’s a message to the army and the government that we’re still here and we will still protest, that we won’t stop until we see a civilian government, not a government appointed by Mubarak himself,” he said, a reference to the former president’s confidants in the transition government.

Associated Press Writer Maggie Michael contributed to this story.

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