Protesters waved flags above Cairo’s Tahrir Square Friday demanding that Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) step down – a scene surprisingly similar to the nation’s February revolution.
“This is a replica of the 18 days that led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak, but this time we want to topple SCAF,” says socialist activist Gigi Ibrahim while Tweeting from Tahrir Square, now littered with tents put up by people staging a sit-in.
Men and women from across Egypt’s vast ideological spectrum converged on the square. Children wearing face paint in the colors of the Egyptian flag contributed to the protests, chanting, “Down with the military council!” Others were there to honor people who were killed in recent clashes.
Since last Saturday, streets leading to Tahrir have been frontlines between security forces and demonstrators that left dozens dead and thousands wounded. A truce announced on Thursday quelled the violence. Egypt's military rulers have insisted Parliamentary elections, scheduled to begin Monday, will go forward.
“Since the time of the pharaohs, we have not been able to choose our leaders and now we have the chance,” said twenty-five year-old Islam Adl, who joined the protest Friday with his friends. “We’re not going to leave because we are dying, and have already died for that chance.”
SCAF took control of governing Egypt when Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11. While the ruling interim council initially vowed they would ensure a swift transition to democracy, some believe they are attempting to hold more permanent power.
SCAF denies the claim. “We’re not intending to stay in power … This is not a gift, it’s actually a huge responsibility, an unfavorable responsibility,” Maj. General Mukhtar El Mallah said in a press conference Thursday.
Protesters and the nation’s leaders have reached an impasse. On Thursday, Maj. General El Mallah portrayed the protesters as thugs trying to overrun the Interior Ministry. Police were not attacking anyone, but simply trying to defend themselves and the Interior Ministry, he said, denying that security forces used live ammunition or shotguns on protesters. But at least 22 of the 41 protesters killed died from gunshot wounds.
Similar to the 18-day February revolution, labor leaders are organizing in support of the upheaval in Tahrir Square. Labor strikes are considered a tipping point that led to Mubarak’s ousting.
Kamal Abu Eitta, founder and board member of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, moved through Friday’s crowd on the shoulders of another demonstrator. Carrying a mega phone, he shouted: “We are here in the square, and we don’t accept the negotiation with SCAF.” He was referring to the Supreme Council’s recent appointment of Kamal al-Ganzuri to the position of prime minister. Mr. Ganzuri was an insider in the Mubarak regime, serving as prime minister in the late '90s. The cabinet and the junta's first Prime Minister Essam Sharaf resigned this week.
“We’re trying to advocate for industrial action in solidarity with Tahrir,” said labor activist and journalist Hossam al Hamalawy, part of the Revolutionary Socialists party. “The SCAF generals will only go if there’s a general strike.”
Mr. Hamalawy says some leaders of the 147 newly-formed trade unions are beginning to work together. Many are handing out leaflets in the workplace and calling on people in Tahrir to reach out to the nation’s workers; The labor force comprises nearly one third of the nation’s 88 million people.
“The labor issue coming into play will settle it once and for all,” Ms. Ibrahim said.
But while the mood and demands in Tahrir Square are strikingly similar to the days of February’s revolution, the differences, perhaps, are outside the square, where many people simply want stability.
“The protesters don’t know what they want – not anymore,” says Dr. Sharif Zaki, an Egyptologist who restores animal mummies at the National Museum. “If the military council goes away, who will run this country?”
“I want the country to be safe. I want real democracy,” he says.
Kristen Chick contributed reporting to this article.