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Thousands celebrate in Cairo

A week after the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, Tahrir Square once again teemed with thousands of Egyptians on Friday, this time celebrating a Day of Victory; their chants and signs reflecting a renewed sense of patriotism and a new social order demanding accountability for ousted leaders.

The gathering was also a mass remembrance of fallen protesters, images of whom were on display everywhere: large banners hanging from traffic lights, placards, paper hats and cards worn around necks. More than 360 people were killed during the 18 days of anti-government demonstrations, the nation’s health minister said this week.

In his Friday sermon in Tahrir Square, Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, who was banned from preaching in the country 30 years ago, said the central gathering spot should be renamed “Martyrs of the Jan. 25 Revolution Square.”

Qaradawi, a leading Muslim theologian who has lived in Qatar since 1961, spoke from the stage where for more than two weeks protest leaders chanted anti-Mubarak slogans. “The youth, I want to shake each of their hands, they raised our heads in pride with what they accomplished, with what they withstood. This revolution taught the world what revolutions should be.”

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He did not address the role of religion in the new Egypt and instead spoke of the continued need for unity among all faiths, including Muslims and Christians.

Qaradawi advised the crowd that the revolution was just beginning and would play a major role in rebuilding Egypt. But he saved his last words for the leaders of other Arab nations.

“Don’t be arrogant,” he said. “The world has changed and the Arab world has changed from the inside.”

Also coming out of political exile this week was Gamaa al Islamiya, a group that fought Egyptian police in the 1990s. A leading member of the group, Assem Abdel-Maged, said in an interview with Reuters news agency that the group, which held its first public meeting in 15 years this week, wants a fresh start in relations with the state.

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Many of those gathered in the huge square Friday or spilling out onto side streets couldn’t hear Qaradawi’s sermon, and throughout chants could be heard: “The people want the purification of their land!”

The tone much of the day was one of retribution, with calls for the prosecution of Mubarak and the execution of former Interior Minister Habib Adli.

“God responded to requests we never dreamed of, the leader resigned, [his son] Gamal [Mubarak] left, we hated Gamal, and ministers were arrested,” said Adil Ibrahim, an elementary school Arabic teacher. “For the first time we saw a minister in jail, something we’ve never seen in Egypt. Their finances were frozen; of course I have to be happy.”

Ibrahim came to the square alone, not wanting to bring his children into the crowd. He sat on a curb watching fellow revelers dancing in the shade of an Egyptian flag that looked to be 50 feet long.

Nearby, two friends balanced plastic cups of red, white and black paint in their hands as they alternately held a cigarette or paint brush in the other. As children, and men and women, young and old, came up to them and offered up their faces, the pair didn’t need to ask what they wanted.

Throughout the day they carefully painted three bars side-by-side on cheek after cheek, trying to avoid getting bumped by passersby or accidentally getting paint on a head scarf.

“From the first day of the revolution I came to paint the Egyptian flag,” said Amr Omar Azab, an out-of-work painter, who charged less than 20 cents per flag. “I’m 24 years old and I can’t rent an apartment and I want to get married.”

Soldiers on tanks throughout the square casually chain-smoked, sometimes posing with children who clambered on top or were hoisted up by parents eager for post-revolution photo ops.

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Earlier in the week, the military, which took control of the country after Mubarak’s resignation, urged people to return to work and a sense of normality, and there was fear that they might try to prevent a celebration Friday. Instead, the military council announced Friday that it would not allow continued labor strikes, which are hitting an already weakened economy and affecting national security, state TV reported.

Within the crowd, some sought to encourage support for the battered economy.

Khaled Bader, 47, and a friend held up a banner that read: “Egypt is celebrating, join us.”

“We invite more tourism because much of it left,” said Bader, a Cairo-based engineer. “The tourism industry in the first nine days of the revolution lost $1 billion. I’m helping in their call for a revival of tourism because Egypt depends on it.”

At one point in the afternoon, a wooden replica of a pyramid — about the size of a compact car — moved slowly across the Qasr el Nil bridge.

Elsewhere, Reuters reported, the army approved the passage of two Iranian warships through the Suez Canal to Syria. The army said the request had stated that the ships, currently in the Red Sea, did not carry military equipment or nuclear material.

raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com


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