7-19-2011By Brian Dooley
Director, Human Rights Defenders
It takes 3 min and 20 secs to walk around Tahrir Square if it’s not packed with people. It’s more of a roundabout than a square, and is now closed to traffic because some protestors returned 10 days ago, claiming a “second revolution” is needed to push the slow pace of reform.
On Saturday afternoon it was a low-key, relaxed place with – on the surface – the feel of a moderately busy pedestrian market. Large and small tents, mostly white, are crammed onto the grassed area of the roundabout itself. There are friendly ID checks as you enter and a question or two about where you’re from (“Ah, Irish! You are welcome.”)
Teenage boys stroll around in European soccer shirts (count for replica kits that day was two for Barcelona, one Manchester United and one for unfashionable English club Wigan).
Many people were dozing in and next to the tents in afternoon sun, while families with small kids meander around, buying tea and cold drinks. It’s hard to imagine this as the white hot center of the revolution.
But some of those in the tents were on hunger strike in protest at the failure of the ruling military council to deliver on reforms. The lull in the square over the weekend was a brief moment of collective breath-holding as Egyptians waited to hear the outcome of a major cabinet reshuffle aimed at addressing the discontent.
The next day, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf fired half of the 30 cabinet members and brought in new heads of the finance and foreign ministries, but the move has met with a mixed reaction from the square. While some unpopular faces have been stood down, others remain. Interior Minister Mansour el-Essawy, who has been a particular target of criticism for being slow to prosecute police officers accused of murdering protestors during the January uprising, kept this job.
The Tahrir protestors have not gone home. “Anyway, it’s not about new names, it’s about replacing the mindset,” one activist told me. Some protestors are calling for urgent root and branch reforms that go further than the last week’s early retiring of 600 senior police officers, further than the televising of the trials of Mubarak’s senior enforcers, further even than the jailing of former ministers (former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly has been sentenced to five years). Lists are circulating in the square of officials who ought to be sacked because of their role in the Mubarak government.
The hopes of February are not being met, and perhaps it was ever unrealistic to think they could be – at least by July. But the interim military rulers are increasingly unpopular, thanks to a combination of harsh suppression of dissent and no obvious upturn in the economy. When General Tareq el-Mahdi tried to address people in the square over the weekend he was heckled, his voice drowned out with anti-military chants, and forced to stop speaking.
There is much prediction of election results (and timing – although at least the first set of polls, for the new parliament, – is likely to happen this year) and the phasing in of new democratic structures. But for many Egyptians the revolution was about bread, and they’re not seeing much benefit yet for the risks they took in protesting.
In Upper Egypt and in Alexandria (where the security forces have a particularly brutal reputation) protests against the government are said to be growing increasingly militant.
So protestors are back in the square, so far in relatively small numbers, but a constant reminder of what might happen if things don’t start to get better very soon.