Thousands of protesters filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday for what was billed as a “second revolution,” chanting their demands: Try former President Hosni Mubarak and his cronies immediately, end military courts, replace the military government with civilian leaders, reform the constitution and delay the September elections.
There were so many demands, so many slogans and signs that it was difficult to keep track.
“Our message is to continue our revolution until we achieve our goals,” said English teacher Mazen Ragab, 25, with the goals being “security, stability — something like that.”
Liberal activists called the protest a success. But analysts and observers said it was the latest proof that Egypt’s progressives have failed to organize themselves post-revolution into a unified political force capable of overtaking the Muslim Brotherhood, a far more established opposition movement, in the upcoming elections.
Ahmed Maher, general coordinator of the April 6 youth movement, said Friday’s protest showed how well activists can reconcile their differences to mount a single event.
Four liberal and secular groups issued a joint list of demands, including guaranteeing Egypt will be a civil state, ending use of military courts to try protesters and other civilians, and postponing the elections until the groups are better able to compete.
“We have dozens of political ideologies with different approaches, like center-left or communists or center-right or seculars, and it’s normal to have differences of opinion and approach between all of them,” he said. “Islamic parties don’t have those divisions because they are all based on one ideology.”
Maher said liberal politicians are at a disadvantage, starting from scratch compared with Muslim Brotherhood candidates.
But even given the time constraints and the Brotherhood’s connections, liberals can do more to get their message across and appeal to voters, said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.
“Egypt’s liberals are having a lot of trouble with the transition” since Mubarak’s ouster in February, Hamid said. “They’re good at protests, but not good at organizing their demands. People are getting frustrated that there’s no game plan.”
Many Egyptians still don’t know what it means to be a liberal, he said, and if liberal activists and candidates don’t get their message across soon they could be “wiped out” in the elections by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Islamic movement was suppressed under Mubarak’s military-backed regime. But in recent weeks its leaders have allied themselves with the military government and refused to participate in Friday’s protest because it would “drive a wedge” between the army and the people, according to a statement.
“The liberals are very reactive: The military does something, they react. But the Islamists are building, they’re forming coalitions and figuring out a way to win in September,” Hamid said.
To succeed in the new political environment, Hamid said, liberals will have to form their own coalitions, probably with religious groups, and let go of being so secular. “They need to learn to speak the language of religion,” he said, the way liberal leaders in Turkey have.
Amani Nour Eldin, 32, disagreed. Eldin, who wore a head scarf and conservative outfit to the square, said it was important to her that the liberal movement in Egypt stays secular, with secular candidates.
“There are a lot of people like me here who want to vote for a political party that is not about religion,” Eldin said.
Some said they were looking for unified action by liberal leaders, more than a unified platform or voice, particularly at a time when much needs to be done to rebuild Egypt.
“They can come on television and talk about their political parties and talk to big gatherings, but that’s not going to work,” said Ibrahim Abdel Baset, 38, an accountant on his way to the protest.
“They need to go out in the streets and get something done, community work, charity work. Then people will naturally start joining. We need to see work on the ground.”
Hassan is a news assistant in The Times’ Cairo bureau.