Cairo: Millions of exuberant Egyptians held a "Victory March" on Friday to celebrate the end of Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule and an influential preacher called on the army to form a new government and free political prisoners.
Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, a Qatar-based preacher and one of the first to back the revolution, said fear had been lifted from Egyptians by the 18-day revolution and he was confident the Higher Military Council would not betray the nation.
"I call on the Egyptian army to liberate us from the government that Mubarak formed," Qaradawi told the faithful at noon prayers in Tahrir (Liberation) Square, after which the huge crowd cheered and waved national flags in jubilation.
The spiritual leader urged worshippers in the world's most populous Arab nation to be patient with the new military rulers.
The cabinet now in place is largely the same as one that Mubarak appointed shortly before he stepped down from the presidency and a reshuffle is expected in the next few days to open a new chapter in modern Egyptian history.
The revolution in Egypt, a US ally which has signed a peace treaty with Israel, sent tremors through the region. Protests have erupted in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Iran and Iraq, taking their cue from Egypt and Tunisia before it.
Life in Egypt is still far from normal a week after the popular uprising focused on Cairo's Tahrir (Liberation) Square, with tanks on the streets, banks closed, workers on strike, schools shut and protests against the government.
"We do not want to see these faces linked to corruption and violence and camels, killing people," said Qaradawi, referring to an assault on pro-democracy protesters in the last days of the revolt when pro-Mubarak thugs charged on horses and camels.
Protect the revolution
In a recurrent theme from politicians and marchers at the rallies, he said: "I say to the youth, protect the revolution and protect its unity. Beware of those who want to divide our ranks and those who want to corrupt your brotherhood."
Egypt's official state news agency, which before Mubarak's downfall, had largely ignored or played down protests, said on Friday that more than 2 million people were in Tahrir Square, which became the nerve-center for anti-Mubarak protest.
Hundreds of thousands joined rallies across Egypt, which are also a memorial to the 365 people who died in the uprising, and many said they would guard the newly-won prospect of democracy. The Tahrir sermon was broadcast to the nation on television.
There were tanks and armored vehicles at the entrances to the sprawling square which was packed tightly with marchers, bowing simultaneously in prayer alongside red-bereted military police and other uniformed soldiers guarding the area.
"This is a serious message to the military," said Mohamed el-Said, 28, who traveled to Cairo from Port Said, gesturing to the colorful sea of people from all walks of life around him.
"After today, it will be more than obvious to them that if they don't protect the revolution and respond to the people's demands, the next time people go down to Tahrir won't be to celebrate victory, but they will bring their blankets with them like before," el-Said told Reuters.
Triumph over sectarianism
Qaradawi said the revolution had been a triumph over sectarianism. "Here in Tahrir the Christian and Muslim stood side by side. This cursed strife is no more," he said, adding: "This revolution has to have been victorious over the pharaoh. When Egypt believes, it challenges the pharaoh."
Security officials said Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq will announce ministers making up the new emergency government next week and hoped the reshuffle would help to appease protesters and workers on strike.
"Shafiq will announce the new government early next week ... Sunday or at the latest Monday and hopefully this will convince people to turn to their daily affairs," said an official.
The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group which says it is committed to democracy, is seen as the only truly organized bloc in Egypt and believes it could win up to 30 percent of votes in a free election. The Brotherhood also warned of the need to protect the gains from the revolution.
"We urge all noble people ... to guard the revolution and its legitimate demands, and not to leave the chance for opportunists to kidnap it and its accomplishments which, with God's permission, have begun to bear fruit," said the Brotherhood's leader Mohamed Badie, ahead of the march.
"This is an Egypt that cannot be deceived," Badie said in his Friday message to followers on the Brotherhood's website.
The army has kept the population on its side during the turmoil and promised to lift a decades-old emergency law, but is under pressure from activists who spearheaded the revolution to act swiftly to advance civil freedoms in the new Egypt.
The army is pledging to hand power to civilian parties when they are strong enough. Opposition forces sidelined or enfeebled under Mubarak's authoritarian rule are beginning to mobilize.
First Published: Friday, February 18, 2011, 21:00