Thousands of Egyptians protested in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Friday against what they say are attempts by the country’s military council to hold onto power. More Photos »
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
CAIRO — Tens of thousands of Islamists jammed Tahrir Square on Friday, demanding the swift exit of Egypt’s interim military rulers in the most significant challenge to their authority since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak nine months ago.
The huge turnout was the first time that Egypt’s Islamists had so openly and aggressively challenged military rule, ending an uneasy truce that had prevailed as long as the military appeared willing to allow the Islamists as much of a say in Egypt’s future as they could win at the ballot box.
That truce fell apart, on the eve of parliamentary elections, after the military council spelled out for the first time its intention to preserve a decisive role for itself in Egyptian politics far into the future, elevating itself above civilian control and imposing rules to protect individual and minority rights. And after sitting out many of the protests organized by liberals since Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, Islamists took to the streets on Friday in a fierce backlash.
“The people didn’t sacrifice hundreds of lives in the revolution so that the military would jump over their will,” said Mohamed Ibrahim, a teacher at a religious school who traveled from Mansoura, about 75 miles away, to attend. “If they can do that, what is the point of parliamentary elections?”
The rally represented the beginning of a new battle between Egypt’s two most powerful political forces, the military and the once-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, that leaves Egyptian liberals and leftists anxious and divided on the sidelines.
“Each side is drawing a line in the sand over its future role in the political process,” said Prof. Emad Shahin, an Egyptian scholar at Notre Dame who was in Tahrir Square on Friday. “The military forces would like to secure an exit from the transitional period with some kind of assurances of their future role in the political scene, and the Islamists think that this could put a check on their power even if they win in clean and fair elections.”
After sunset, as thousands of protesters prepared to camp overnight in the square, the military-led government declared in a statement that it refused to withdraw its guidelines but that it would continue to debate them with political leaders through the beginning of the coming elections. The move ensured that the deeply polarizing debate would continue to grip the country as voters go to the polls, beginning Nov. 28.
Many liberals were torn between their fears of military rule and a religious takeover. Most liberals stayed home despite the stated democratic demands of the protest: giving power to elected civilians. In fact, some liberals appeared to be looking to the military council to act as a hedge against a religious takeover and to impose a “bill of rights” before elections that the Islamists might win.
“The liberals would rather prolong the transitional phase than accept the results of clean and fair elections, which shows they are not very sure about their weight in society and politics,” Professor Shahin said, suggesting they preferred “to cooperate with those in power.”
The April 6 Movement, a pivotal force in the uprising, was one of the few liberal groups to make a conspicuous presence on Friday. Its banners called the day “the Friday of One Demand” — meaning a transfer of power to the lower house of Parliament as soon as it is seated in April. The military initially pledged to cede power to a civilian authority by September, but is now expected to delay that transition until 2013 or later.
An April 6 activist said its members had been told not to talk about the military’s controversial guidelines. “Of course there are fears of Islamists’ taking power,” said Dina Allithy, 23, a recent college graduate and a member of the group. “But today we are trying to ignore all of that.”
The Brotherhood, an organization that honed its discipline under decades of police scrutiny, sent hundreds of members on Thursday night to camp out and start setting up in Tahrir Square, the staging ground of a two-week sit-in that ousted Mr. Mubarak in February. By Friday morning, buses arrived carrying thousands of supporters from outside Cairo.
But the Brotherhood was not the only Islamist group present in force. Even after news reports Friday night said the Brotherhood had told its members to leave the square, thousands of others Islamists — mostly ultraconservatives known as Salafis — were setting up tents and preparing to stay the night. Late Saturday morning, Egyptian riot police finally moved in to take down the remaining tents and clear the last few protestors out of the square.
During the demonstration on Friday, protesters chanted calls for the overthrow of the ruling military council or the exit of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the council. “Tantawi, we will step over you with a shoe!” some chanted.
“Down with the rule of the military,” others declared. “We are the people; we are the red line.”
All said they came to protest because of the provisions about the role of the military in its constitutional ground rules. One provision would give the military a special political role as guardian of “constitutional legitimacy,” which many consider a license to intervene at will in any matter. Other provisions would protect its budget from civilian supervision and grant the military broad authority over foreign policy as well.
“We are the people, we made the revolution and we don’t need a guardian to tell us how to write our constitution,” said Mohamed Abdel Azeem, 40, a railroad worker from a town an hour outside Cairo. “The army is the people’s institution, and the people have the right to supervise it.”
Some said they would welcome the civil liberties provisions in the declaration, if only they had come from the public instead of the military. But others suggested that they wanted the next government to have the freedom to impose more restrictive interpretations of Islamic law, or Shariah. “It will come, but gradually,” said Mohamed Hassan, 24, a teacher from Ismailia, east of Cairo.
“We can’t say tomorrow we will govern by Islamic Shariah. It will take time, because for hundreds of years we have lived by Western democracy,” he said, referring to the undemocratic Egyptian government’s relative tolerance in matters like women’s dress, alcohol sales or the news media.
Leading afternoon prayers in the square, Imam Mazhar Shahin — based in an adjacent mosque — called for unity. “Don’t let names and titles drive you apart,” he said. “There is no difference between Salafis, liberals and Muslim brothers; they’re all Egyptians.”
Moments later, the demonstration felt like a collision of political campaigns, with dueling speeches from multiple soundstages by Islamist political parties competing in the parliamentary elections: from the mainstream Freedom and Justice Party, founded by the Muslim Brotherhood, to the smaller parties founded by Salafis and the relatively liberal Center Party. All festooned the square with their posters and banners.
Some demonstrators waved Saudi flags. Ibrahim Abdel Aziz, 20, a student at Al Azhar, the Islamic university, argued that they were carrying them only for their Islamic slogans, not admiration for Saudi Arabia. “It is a tyrannical monarchy,” he said.
At one point, protesters with the liberal April 6 Movement marched into the square, chanting slogans against the Saudis, like, “Saudi, you have enough children; Egypt is none of your business.”
In apparent defense of the kingdom, a group of Islamists nearby began shouting, “Islamic! Islamic!”
But after a few moments of clashing chants, the standoff was broken as both took up the same refrain in unison: “Down, down with military rule.”