CAIRO - One year ago, young Egyptians waited in fear on street corners for protesters to gather before mustering the courage to chant slogans against Hosni Mubarak. They marched expecting injury or arrest. Many snuck out of home, afraid to tell their parents.
Twelve months after they ousted Mubarak in an 18-day uprising, young Egyptians were back on the streets. This time, tens of thousands clogged roads and squares and their parents and younger siblings came with them.
Youths who sparked the revolt a year ago have watched as the more experienced Islamists have reaped the political gains, but Egyptians gathered to celebrate the first anniversary of the revolt on Jan. 25 said the real gain was their newfound courage to speak out.
The fear that had kept them off the streets through decades of repression was now a distant memory.
"Raise your voice, raise it loud: freedom, freedom! There is no turning back," the crowds chanted on Wednesday in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicentre of a popular revolt that flickered across the world's television screens in 2011.
"Our demands are the same but we are not!" others chanted as families basked in the winter sunshine and strangers plunged into debate on the future of Egypt, its constitution, and the role of the military generals who took over from Mubarak.
A year ago, many protesters were reluctant to give their names to journalists interviewing them in Tahrir Square for fear of being tracked down and arrested by state security. On Wednesday, many offered their full names and occupations without being prompted, some brandishing their identity cards.
"I walked these same streets last year believing I would be buried by night time," 38-year-old Ahmed Mowad said.
"We are not the same people anymore and that is what the generals need to understand. Last year, we were a herd of sheep that they thought could be handed on from father to son, today, we are free," Mowad said, referring to a widely held belief that the 83-year-old Mubarak was seeking to pass office to his son.
Ahmed Ramadan, a 43-year-old craftsman, interrupted Mowad to add his voice: "Before Jan. 25 last year, we couldn't even stand in a circle and talk to each other. I wouldn't have looked at a journalist, let alone had a conversation."
"Revolution is alive"
Online activists organised the protests a year ago, initially taking the majority of Egyptians by surprise. Inspired by the success of Tunisians in ousting their own leader days before, more and more Egyptians joined the youthful protesters until hundreds of thousands were in the streets.
With Mubarak now on trial for his life and a new parliament dominated by his Islamist adversaries, many youths who turned to the Internet to launch last year's revolt are now disenchanted with military rulers they worry are dragging out the transition.
Determined to see through outstanding demands for jobs and justice, young and old Egyptians flocked to the square on Wednesday, waving the flag. Many said they had driven into the capital to take part in the rallies.
"Our demands are still far from being achieved. I don't want the army council to step down but I want to say that the revolution is alive," said 27-year-old Hamed Ali, who rode a bus all night to arrive in Cairo from his Nile Delta village.
Clutching signs with the names of their villages and cities, others listed demands they believe have yet to be addressed.
"On this day last year, I didn't protest but I spent every day afterwards in the square. I am here today because I want to send a clear message: that no matter what happens next, I won't give up on the revolution," Nermine Hosny said.
"The revolution cannot die. I will be back in the square whenever I have to be here. I am not afraid and I won't ever be the same person I was before," the 32-year-old pharmacist added.
The inflation and the joblessness that brought many Egyptians, fed up with inequalities, onto the streets last year will take years to remedy. But Egyptians now feel they can force their rulers to listen.
"The bread queues are just as long now as they were before the revolution. The injustice is just the same. The poverty is just as bad," said Mohamed Hamed, a 19-year-old who dropped out of school to find employment.
"I am upset. Where are the rights we demanded last year? The only thing that has changed is that I will stay a revolutionary until they are achieved," Hamed said, holding crutches to support his broken right leg.