CAIRO — Hundreds of thousands of flag-waving Egyptians packed into Cairo's central Tahrir Square in the first major rally since the fall of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak a week ago, celebrating his ouster and pressing Egypt's new military rulers to uproot the rest of his regime and steer the country toward reform.
Organizers are seeking to turn their movement, which forced Mubarak's removal after 18 days of mass protests, to now put pressure on the military to take greater action against regime figures who still hold considerable power.
Friday's crowd appeared to spiral well beyond the quarter-million that massed for the biggest of the anti-Mubarak protests. But for many, it was much a nationalist celebration of what has been accomplished as a rally to demand more. Parents painted children's faces with the national colors of black, white and red; the crowd unfurled giant Egyptian flags. Vendors hawked T-shirts praising the "Jan. 25 revolution" — a reference to the date protests began.
Protest leaders addressed the sprawling crowd, saying rallies must go on until the military meets their demands.
Protesters want the army to dissolve the caretaker government headed by Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, which was appointed by Mubarak in his final weeks and contains many of his stalwarts. They also want the lifting of emergency laws that give police near unlimited powers of arrest. So far, the military has not moved on either issue, or on another demand for the release of thousands of political prisoners.
"We'll stay in the square until there is a new government, because there is no way we will see change under a government by the National Democratic Party," proclaimed prominent TV journalist Wael el-Ibrashi, one of the speakers on a stage before the crowd, referring to Mubarak's former ruling party.
Protest organizers have called for weekly protests every Friday, and their ability to keep them going will be a major test of how much they can influence the army.
Prominent Muslim cleric Sheik Youssef el-Qaradawi, who is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, led the crowd in prayers, proclaiming, "The revolution is not over, until we have a new Egypt."
El-Qaradawi's appearance in Cairo's main square marked a dramatic return for the influential cleric, who has mostly lived abroad for decades after being jailed for his anti-government stances. During the protests, he used his weekly TV show on Al-Jazeera to urge Egyptians to join. In the square Friday, he hailed the young protest activists — from a range of ideologies — saying, "They knew that the revolution will win in the end."
In Egypt's second largest city, the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, hundreds of thousands rallied outside a main mosque, then paraded down the seafront boulevard. They shouted for the Shafiq government's removal, using the same chant as protests against Mubarak — "The people want to topple the regime." Soldiers in the streets did not interfere.
In Tahrir, the military seemed eager to encourage a festive, nationalist atmosphere: Soldiers distributed Egyptian flags to families as they streamed into the square. At one point, a military marching band paraded through the square the entertain the partygoers. Army tanks and checkpoints were stationed at entrances to the square, with soldiers checking IDs and bags of those heading in.
The Armed Forces Supreme Council, a body of top generals which forced Mubarak to resign and hand it his powers, has promised a swift transition to an elected government and president — within six months. In the final days of the protests, many in the crowds had pleaded with the army to push Mubarak out.
But in the past week, worries have begun to arise among protest leaders about the military's handling of the transition. Changes to the constitution are being planned behind closed doors by a military-appointed panel. So far, reform leaders have not been given any position of power or influence in the transition, the Mubarak-apppointed government remains in place, and police powers remain intact.
The military has hinted over the past week that its patience is running out with protests and especially labor strikes that have spread wildly since the days just before Mubarak's fall.
But far from cracking down, the army's attitude toward Friday's rally could mark a different strategy: Turn the "revolution" into a nationalist event, celebrate it, but then move on.
Manal Samir, 49, a pediatrician who brought her two daughters to the celebrations, said she had faith in the army for now, "but only for a temporary period." She said her sons had participated in the 18 days of massive protests that led to Mubarak's resignation a week ago, but she and her daughters, aged 12 and 16, hadn't come until now.
"We came to celebrate what the young people (had done). I want my children to know what happened here, and to learn from it," she said. "Not everything comes at the same time, but I believe we won because Mubarak left and the other demands will be fulfilled in time."
The atmosphere was festive. Vendors hawked T-shirts proclaiming "Jan. 25, the day we changed Egypt," flags, headbands and badges all in the red-black-and-while national colors. Some even sold vuvuzelas, the buzzing horns that became the soundtrack to the World Cup in South Africa last summer.
"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 held a handwritten cardboard sign, "The people want to cleanse the country of corruption," it read.
A monument to those killed in the uprising — at least 365 civilians, according to the Health Ministry — was erected in one area of the vast plaza. Many lay flowers in front of the monument or took photos of the pictures of the dead.
Many said they were focused on continuing to pressure the military.
Mohammed Zuheir, an activist handing out signs, said: "We have one main demand, we want the end of the old regime and a new government that has no people left over from Mubarak's regime."
Asked what the organizers plan was, he pointed at the huge crowd in the square. "That's what we are doing," he said. "We are still concentrating on coming out together as one to get rid of the old regime."
Speaking with a microphone on stage, Mohammed el-Beltagy, a Muslim Brotherhood member prominent in the protests, led the crowd in a call-and-response, shouting, "Can we stop the protests when the government of Ahmed Shafiq is still there?" The crowd roared back, "No, no, no."
In a small counterpoint to the scene at Tahrir Square, scores of Mubarak supporters protested outside a mosque Friday. Demonstrators, many dressed in black, held photos of the ex-president and said they wanted to honor the man who led them for nearly three decades because they felt he had been humiliated by the revolt.
While the uprising has lifted national pride, it has pounded the Egyptian economy, raising the tension between protesters and their new rulers.
The tourism industry has been hit hard, with many vacationers abandoning trips and tourism sites closed. Egypt plans to reopen heritage sites Sunday, and France's CETO association of tour operators said Friday that it will start sending tourists to Red Sea resorts, Nile River cruises and the southern Lake Nasser starting next Tuesday.
"Tour operators are still evaluating the situation in other areas of the country, notably for the city of Cairo," a CETO statement said.1 comment on this story
Banks and the stock market also 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," he said. "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."
Associated Press Writer Maggie Michael contributed to this story.