Egyptian activists began massing in central Cairo tonight ahead of Friday protests against the country’s military, which has become a focal point for popular anger ahead of the first round of parliamentary elections on November 28.
A small but forceful crowd led a march through the streets and into Tahrir Square, where protesters were busy preparing for tomorrow’s demonstrations. Activists chanted slogans criticizing the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and its head, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi: “You, field marshal, your turn is coming;” “Down, down with the military;” “Be angry! Revolt! SCAF will leave;” “Yes, we are chanting against the military”.
Meanwhile, in the square—which has become the go-to site for demonstrations ever since massive protests successfully brought about the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak in February—activists were pitching tents and erecting a large stage for tomorrow’s speeches. Around the square’s edge, vendors had set up food stands selling snacks and tea. The Tahrir crowd cut across a wide swath of Egyptian society: liberal activists mingled with Muslim Brotherhood members and Salafists, who practice a strict conservative form of Islam. Everywhere, on signs and placards, one date loomed large: April 30, 2012—the day that protesters are demanding that the military peacefully transfer power to a democratically elected legislature. Or, as one sign put it: “April 30 or else."
While the military initially seemed open to protesters’ demands after Mubarak’s exit, it has consolidated its grip on power in the nine months since the revolution began—instituting emergency law, trying citizens in military courts and proposing to stay in control until parliament drafts a constitution and elects a president, which could take many months. In the latest move to worry voters, a vice prime minister has proposed a controversial constitutional document that would give the military power over the elected officials who will draft the country’s new constitution.
Activists confirmed this growing sense of discontent with SCAF. “I am here because the military is ruling,” said 55-year-old Cairene Khaled El-Fishawy. In another corner of the square, where a group of youths were building a fire to keep warm in the brisk night air, 36-year-old graphic designer Abdel Tawab Mohammed Bakr had only one demand: “the handing over of authority … that’s enough of SCAF now.” He choked a bit on the smoke from his campfire. “What is one good thing that SCAF has done?” he asked emphatically, jabbing his finger toward the sky. Bakr ticked off a list of grievances: the military hasn’t outlawed former members of Mubarak’s NDP party from participating in elections; it’s tried to amend the constitution in its favor.
The preparations for protest come after a day of unrest in the city. Earlier on Thursday, in Cairo’s gritty neighborhood of Shoubra, Coptic Christians gathered to march in commemoration of the 40-day anniversary of a bloody attack on their brethren. The marchers encountered violence along the route; cab driver Mahmoud Mohammed, who was trying to drive through the area at the time, witnessed people throwing Molotov cocktails and glass bottles at the Christians. The mob even attacked Mohammed’s car with a stone. He seemed nervous as he recounted the scene. “Everyone hates this fucking country now,” he said.
According to reports from Egyptian officials, 29 people were injured in the attack. But the Tahrir activists remained upbeat. Said Ahmed Salah, a veteran activist who helped organize the anti-SCAF march: “We are continuing with our revolution.”