Saturday, February 12, 2011

Elated protesters 'staying put' in Tahrir Square until demands for democracy are met

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2011; 7:38 AM

CAIRO - Even as they celebrated their triumph over a dictator, many of Egypt's revolutionaries vowed Saturday to continue their peaceful occupation of Tahrir Square, saying their demands for democracy and accountability were still unmet.

Smaller but still vibrant crowds of elated Egyptians packed the square in central Cairo to take stock of their improbable success at ousting President Hosni Mubarak and to contemplate what might come next. Soldiers remained posted outside the square, ostensibly to maintain order, but grinned approvingly at the spectacle unfolding before them.

Still, the revolution's future path remained murky. Egypt's military chiefs, who took control of the country after Mubarak's abrupt abdication Friday, partially lifted an emergency curfew that the government had imposed during the protests. They also prohibited ex-government officials from leaving the country without permission.

But the military gave no immediate indication of how it planned to govern, or if it intended to give the revolutionaries a seat at the table.

"We're staying put. We're not leaving until the regime is gone," said Issa Adel Issa, one of the many youthful organizers of the encampment at Tahrir, or Liberation, Square. "We don't want a military government. We want a democracy with civilians in charge."

Issa ticked off a list of demands: the dissolution of Mubarak's handpicked parliament; the dissolution of his ruling National Democratic Party; the release of thousands of political prisoners; and prosecution of those responsible for the death of an estimated 300 demonstrators who were killed during the 18-day revolution.

"We have to sentence those responsible for these crimes," he said.

Ahmed Abed Ghafur, a 36-year-old computer engineer from Mansoura, a city about 100 miles north of Cairo, woke up to a fourth consecutive dawn after sleeping on the ground at Tahrir. He said he had no intention of leaving either, not until the military made more specific promises about institutionalizing a true democracy.

"This is a revolution, not a half-revolution," he said. "We need a timetable for elections. We need an interim government. We need a committee for a new constitution. Once we get all that, then we can leave the square."

While many protesters agreed with those sentiments, a consensus appeared far out of reach. Other Egyptians said they had made their point and that it was time to go home. Others proposed leaving the square for now but returning for weekly demonstrations.

Still others worried that they would be associated with the wrong side of history: Several of Mubarak's ministers and party officials resigned Friday and Saturday as they tried to distance themselves from his discredited regime.

The 82-year-old Mubarak's fate also remained unclear. He and his wife, Suzanne, were holed up in a luxury hotel at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, having abandoned Cairo the day before. He vowed several times during the 18-day revolution that he would never go into exile, insisting he would die on Egyptian soil.

In a statement read Friday on state television, Egypt's supreme military council paid respects to Mubarak, a former air force general, and thanked him for his service to the country. While some Egyptians said he should be allowed to retire in peace, popular pressure mounted to hold him accountable, particularly on suspicions of widespread corruption in his family and inner circle.

In Tahrir Square, a group calling itself the Association of the Artists of the Revolution had taken over the boarded-up storefront of a condemned Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. They plastered the facade with dozens of hand-drawn cartoon posters, all of them mocking Mubarak and many depicting him with bundles of ill-gotten loot.

One satirized Mubarak running his way through Tahrir Square, escaping with a large bag of money as Egyptians threw shoes at his back. It has become an article of faith in Egypt that Mubarak has become fabulously wealthy at the people's expense, accumulating as much as $70 billion dollars. Although such a figure is almost certainly exaggerated, the true extent of his holdings is unknown.

Desires for revenge and retribution, however, were largely overshadowed by Egyptians' immense pride at what their revolution had wrought and the fact that they had done it by embracing peaceful tactics. Looting and disorder were resolutely frowned upon to avoid tarnishing their cause.

Upholding that image was paramount for many demonstrators as Tahrir Square began to acquire a sacred status in the nation's consciousness.

Perhaps the biggest activity in the plaza on Saturday was directed by the revolutionaries' Sanitation Coordination Committee. Small armies of volunteers, armed with brooms and dustpans, fanned out across Tahrir as they attacked refuse with a vengeance and swept away the past.

Special correspondent Sami Sockol contributed to this report.

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