Egyptians poured into Tahrir Square on Wednesday to mark a year since the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, with the ruling military planning grandiose celebrations and activists vowing to reignite their unfinished revolution.
Thousands of Islamists, liberals, leftists and ordinary citizens entered the square, the epicentre of protests that ousted Mubarak, waving flags and bearing banners reflecting the day's different messages.
The powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the newly elected parliament, is there to celebrate one year since Egyptians - inspired by an uprising in Tunisia - took to the streets to topple the regime.
But other groups, including pro-democracy movements behind the revolt, insist they are there to reignite their unfinished revolution and demand the ouster of the military council that took over when Mubarak quit.
As protesters sang the national anthem and activists on podiums tested their microphones, a military band played in one corner of Tahrir.
But chants of “Down, down with military rule” drowned out the music, forcing the band to be shuttled away by bus.
“We will keep going to Tahrir to push for the goals of the revolution, no matter what,” said Hala Rashad, a 46-year-old chef.
“The military council has done nothing. They are behaving just like the old regime. We have not received our rights and the country is a mess,” she said.
At the entrances to Tahrir, “popular committees” searched protesters after the interior ministry said there would be no police presence at the square. “The first anniversary celebration” proclaimed one huge banner.
“Down, Down with military rule,” read another.
The big question, reflected in the headline of the state-owned weekly Al-Ahram Hebdo, remains “Who will capture the soul of the revolution?”
On Tuesday, military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi announced the partial lifting of a hated decades-old emergency law, in an apparent bid to placate protesters, but said the law would still apply to acts of “thuggery.”
Activists called the move cosmetic, denouncing the term “thuggery” as a way to maintain the police's wide powers of arrest.
“January 25 is the first anniversary of the day when Egyptians stood up together to demand an end to police abuse and the state of emergency,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“It is an insult to all those calling for a return to the rule of law to make excuses to keep this state of emergency, used abusively for so many years, in place,” he said.
Eager to restore its image after accusations of rights abuses, the military has planned mass celebrations with a naval parade off the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, air shows in Cairo and fireworks displays nationwide.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is also issuing commemorative coins and has pledged to release almost 2 000 prisoners to mark the occasion.
It has called on Egyptians to “preserve the spirit of January 25, which united the Egyptian people, men and women, young and old, Muslims and Christians.”
But protesters say the revolution has been hijacked by Tantawi, Mubarak's long-time defence minister.
They want him and the ruling generals to step down immediately and to stay out of drafting Egypt's new constitution, for fear they may enshrine military powers into it.
The SCAF has vowed to cede power to civilian rule when a president is elected by June.
Security forces say they are on alert for “any attempts to sabotage” the celebration, a thinly veiled warning to protesters.
But Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said the police “will not be present in the squares or where large celebrations are taking place” and called instead on political forces to “form popular committees” to secure the streets.
Amnesty International said the military rulers must protect protesters and uphold the right to peaceful assembly.
“Rather than abandoning the sites of planned demonstrations, the security forces must act responsibly by ensuring that everyone can safely exercise their right to peaceful expression and assembly,” said Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa deputy director.
“In a polarised environment where protesters have been portrayed by some state media and the authorities as trouble makers and as counter-protests are planned on the day, the position of the authorities risks amounting to a dereliction of their duty,” she said.
Mubarak himself will mark the anniversary from a bed in a Cairo military hospital, accused of involvement in the killing of protesters during the uprising.
If found guilty, the former president of 30 years could face the death penalty. - AFP