CAIRO, (AP) – Tens of thousands of flag-waving Egyptians packed into Tahrir Square for a day of prayer and celebration Friday to mark the fall of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak a week ago and to maintain pressure on the new military rulers to steer the country toward democratic reforms.
The groups that sparked the 18-day revolt leading to Mubarak’s downfall called the massive gathering the “Friday of Victory and Continuation,” a name reflecting both their pride in forcing a change in national leadership and their worries about the future.
Influential Egyptian cleric Sheik Youssef el-Qaradawi led Friday prayers at the square, hailing the uprising and saying “the illegitimate can never defeat the truth.”
“I congratulate the youth,” he said. “They knew that the revolution will win in the end.”
“The revolution is not over, until we have a new Egypt,” he added.
People flooded the square ahead of prayers, even though a main access road was blocked by an army jeep and a barricade, and those entering on foot had to present identification to soldiers.
The atmosphere was festive, as organizers hoped it would be, maintaining the upbeat spirit of the earlier protests. A military-style brass band marched through the crowd, while a few vendors sold vuvuzelas, the buzzing horns that became the soundtrack to the World Cup in South Africa last summer.
“We came here because we are excited about Egypt and the revolution,” said 48-year-old Ashraf Abdel-Azim, who made his way to the square with his wife, Nadwa, and their 9-year-old son, Ahmed. “We want freedom and change, so we are happy to see it coming.”
His wife had prepared a handwritten cardboard sign. “The people want to cleanse the country of corruption,” it read.
The three young children of Nizar Mohammad and his wife, Rasha, were caught up in the patriotic fervor of the moment with Egypt’s red, white and black flag painted on their faces. They carried small flags, too.
“We want our kids to see where all of this happened,” Rasha Mohammad said.
In one area of the vast plaza, a monument to those killed in the uprising — the Health Ministry has said at least 365 civilians died — had been erected. Many stopped before the monument, laying flowers on the ground or taking pictures of the pictures of those killed.
Organizers planned a lineup of bands in the afternoon, while an ad agency was looking to shoot footage to promote Egypt’s tourism industry, which has been hard hit by the nation’s political tumult.
Among those waiting in line to get in was a group of about 30 activists from the “Visit Egypt” campaign. They wore matching T-shirts with the slogan “Support Freedom, Visit Egypt” printed on the front.
Despite Friday’s festivities, the situation in Egypt remains unsettled amid labor unrest and worries the military council running the country won’t implement promised reforms.
Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling council, hasn’t even appeared in public since Mubarak stepped down under enormous pressure from the crowds that began protesting Jan. 25, and would not stop despite being attacked by pro-Mubarak forces.
Supporters of the ousted president set up a Facebook page calling for a competing “rally in gratitude for President Hosni Mubarak.”
While revolution has been good for national pride, it has pounded the Egyptian economy.
Banks and the stock market have been shuttered by the uprising, and the military has twice warned Egyptians not to strike. Even so, at least 1,500 employees of the Suez Canal Authority protested for better pay, housing and benefits Thursday in three cities — just one example of workers nationwide using this opportunity to voice long-held grievances.
Wael Hassan, a 32-year-old dentist who participated in the Cairo protests and witnessed major clashes on Jan. 28, went to Tahrir Square on Friday and captured the anxiety many Egyptians have about the future.
“For me, it’s not a celebration. It’s a message to the army and the government that we’re still here and we will still protest, that we won’t stop until we see a civilian government, not a government appointed by Mubarak himself,” he said, a reference to the former president’s confidants in the transition government.