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A return to Cairo as Egypt begins the daunting work of building a new nation.
CAIRO — Just after Friday prayers, Mohammed Abbas, a member of the Revolutionary Youth Council, joined protesters crowded in Tahrir Square to demand justice for 840 protesters killed in the demonstrations that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It was early July, and Abbas looked as if it felt good to be back, mingling with the different protest groups, hugging acquaintances and leaning in close to whisper private conversations.
Among the more hopeful outcomes of the 18 days that led to the collapse of the Mubarak government on Feb. 11 was the way the protests brought together people who would never have been free to assemble (there were laws against that) or get to know each other (for 30 years the regime exploited the divisions in Egyptian society). Some bonds formed in those heady days had endured.
Abbas, from a working class family loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood, now has friends who are Marxists, Christians, Nasserists, Salafists, liberals and Socialists. Some are rich kids from the posh enclave of Zamalek, a small island just across the Nile. Others are from the sprawling districts like Shoubra and Imbaba that envelop the capital. Back in January and February, these relationships were part of what Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch called the "Tahrir moment:" a collective revelry over the gentle belief that a diverse movement had toppled a dictator and was ushering in a new Egypt.
FRONTLINE producer/cameraman Tim Grucza and I returned to Cairo several weeks ago to revisit Tahrir Square and catch up with the leaders of the protest movement whom, like Abbas, we had followed during the most dramatic moments of the revolution. Our trip coincided with a sudden return of protests in the square that erupted out of a frustration with a failure by the interim government to bring to justice those who killed unarmed protesters.
Violence flared as the police tried to push the protesters back in running battles for several days. The protesters dug in, intent on forcing Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military leadership which has been running the country, to address the revolution's initial grievance, the issue of police brutality.
“The military has let us down. We trusted them to lead and they have not done it.”~Mohammed Abbas
Protesters demanded that police under the Ministry of Interior be held accountable for firing live rounds and killing unarmed protesters, and that Mubarak answer for abuses under his rule.
On Aug. 3, an apparently ailing Mubarak was wheeled in by gurney to a courtroom with a steel cage for defendants in a spectacle that has riveted the Arab world. He faces a possible death sentence for charges ranging from corruption to murder. On Aug. 15, Mubarak appeared again in court amid protests against the transitional government's decision to no longer televise the proceedings, which are set to continue next month.
Despite the unified cries for justice, the protest movement has largely splintered along lines of political parties and factions. All are competing for a spot in elections scheduled for November — and to shape events in Egypt after Mubarak. The country of 82 million is still far short of the goals of its first free and fair elections, the writing of a new constitution and the reform of the police force. Morayef, who coined the term "Tahrir moment," acknowledged the new challenges when we met with her this time. But she remained optimistic.
BACK TO TAHRIR
Six months ago, Abbas emerged as a leader when Tahrir Square was a forest of tents, swelling with more than 300,000 people. On the Thursday night in February that Mubarak defied expectations by vowing to remain in power, Abbas took off his shoe and raised it to the air, a deep insult in the Arab world. Soon tens of thousands of people in Tahrir were joining him with their shoes raised high. He grabbed a microphone and told the crowd, "The Army has to choose between the regime and the Egyptian people!"
Then he began a ferocious chant and the huge, swelling crowd followed in unison: "The Army and the people hand in hand! The Army and the people, hand in hand!"