Egypt's military rulers have pledged to release more than 1,900 people tried in military courts to mark the first anniversary of the start of a revolution that toppled longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.

The pledge came Wednesday after Egypt's military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi decreed on national television Tuesday night that the nation's hated emergency laws would be partially lifted on the anniversary day, but said the strict measures will remain applicable to crimes committed by "thugs."

Tantawi's decision to partially lift the decades-old laws, which give police far-reaching powers, will likely not satisfy rights groups that have objected to the repeated use by the military of the term "thugs" to justify crackdown on protesters.

In another apparent goodwill gesture, blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad was freed Tuesday. He was arrested in March and sentenced by a military court to three years in prison over his criticism of the military's use of violence against protesters.

The military caretaker government has declared Wednesday a holiday and celebrations are expected in Cairo and other cities. But many citizens are expressing frustration with the slow pace of change and anger over the military's continued strict rule.

On Tuesday, hundreds gathered at Cairo's Tahrir Square and began assembling tents at the site of last year's focal point of anti-Mubarak demonstrations. There were numerous reports on Twitter of a heavy riot police presence around the square and that police were blocking some off streets leading to the site.

The CBC's Margaret Evans travelled to Mahalla el-Kubra, a large industrial city a few hours north of Cairo that was the site of anti-government protests back in 2008, which are credited with paving the way for the Arab Spring and the Egyptian revolution.

Modaz Abdul-Hamid, a doctor in Mahalla el-Kubra, told CBC News that residents thought the changes were going to occur immediately after the revolution.

CBC NEWS IS THERE

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The CBC's Margaret Evans, Evan Mitsui and Manmeet Ahluwalia are in Egypt for the first anniversary of the start of the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak's regime. Follow their reports on CBCNews.caCBC News Network and CBC Radio.

"We thought that it was going to the right way, but now, you're not so sure, " he said in Arabic. "Just the president [went] away. All the other needs [have]

not happened yet."

People in the city are hungry for tangible economic and social change, but they also cite an ongoing lack of freedom.

Egyptians still get arrested for criticizing the country's leadership, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is run by Mubarak's old friend Tantawi.

Ebrahim el Shafie, who spoke to CBC News after bailing his son out of jail, said he believes life is worse now than under Mubarak. El Shafie said his son and four of his friends were arrested from the street just for saying Tantawi should step down from the military committee.

But others describe a country left fatigued a year after the demonstrations and the subsequent struggles. Alaa el Bahalwn, who runs a small weaving firm, admits many Egyptians have no appetite for more protests.

But el Bahalwn told CBC News that staying out of Tahrir Square won't get Egypt to where it needs to be, although where that is exactly is itself a major issue of dispute.

CBC coverage

CBC News will be inside Cairo on Jan. 25, the first anniversary of the massive uprising in Tahrir Square that led to the end of President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime.

We'll have complete coverage of the extraordinary changes put in motion by Arab Spring.  Our correspondents will deliver stories that illustrate the new Egypt and its dramatically shifting political and social landscape:

  • Complete radio coverage by Margaret Evans on World Report, World this Hour and World at Six;
  • Correspondent Saša Petricic will re-visit Cairo for The National with Peter Mansbridge.  He'll look at the major changes still underway as Egypt moves away from authoritarian rule;
  • Nahlah Ayed will also offer her perspective on the massive shift brought about by Arab Spring;
  • Complete coverage of daily news by CBCNews.ca, plus a slide show from our online journalism team inside Egypt;
  • News Network:  Live, up-to-the-minute coverage of the historic anniversary. 
With files from Margaret Evans, Evan Mitsui and The Associated Press