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Where Have All the Tahrir Square Activists Gone?

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At a Tahrir Square rally, a man holds a sign calling for solidarity of Muslims and Christians. Image by Reese Erlich. Egypt, 2011.

Barely recovered from jet lag, I lit out for Tahrir Square on my first day in Cairo. Tahrir has taken on mythic status in the Arab world, but it’s really just a large traffic circle surrounded by high rise buildings. At one point several million people filled the square, symbolically stopping the government, and leading to the overthrow of the autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak.

On this day, however, only a few thousand rallied here, chanting slogans against the military government that took over from Mubarak, and demanding release of political prisoners. Dozens had been arrested on May 15 for protesting in front of the Israeli Embassy. They were tried in military, not civilian, courts. Under popular pressure, one week later, almost all the protesters were given one-year suspended sentences and released. The military also released over a hundred demonstrators from previous protests.

And that’s the contradiction facing today’s Egypt. The old dictatorship has been replaced with a military council that carries out many of the same domestic and foreign policies as Mubarak, according to the Tahrir activists. It arbitrarily arrests dissidents, and still engages in abuse and torture. Tahrir activists want the military out of power as soon as possible.

But many other Egyptians support the military as a force for stability. They see developments in Syria and Libya, where most of the military supports the old regime, and praise the Egyptian Army for forestalling a similar disaster.

“We should give the government some time,” truck driver Ahmad Fathi tells me. “We shouldn’t have sit-ins and demonstrations every day. We need time for things to get back to normal.”

Tahrir activists admit they’ve got a lot of organizing to do if they are to have a significant impact on the wider public. “We need 5 million in the streets to make change,” Tahrir Square leader Tarek Shalaby tells me.

Everyone is scrambling to prepare for parliamentary elections now scheduled for sometime in September. Presidential elections may be held two months later, although no date has been set. Tahrir Square activists are hoping to consolidate their gains by backing leftist candidates. But so far the conservative Muslim Brotherhood and elements from Mubarak’s old party, the National Democratic Party, seem better organized.

Meanwhile, workers continue wildcat strikes demanding higher wages. Violent conflicts have broken out between extremist Muslims and Coptic Christians. And activists have called for a mass mobilization against the military government to be held in Tahrir on May 27.

The revolution is far from over.

But after a crazy first day with over a dozen interviews, my jet lag finally kicks in. The revolution may not be finished, but I am. I head back to my hotel and sleep for a long time.