Cairo – Tens of thousands of Egyptians chanting anti-military slogans flooded downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday to protest the ruling military council's attempts to expand its powers and prolong the transition to civilian rule.
Islamists dominated the demonstration, one of the biggest since the 18-day uprising that brought down longtime President Hosni Mubarak. But the push to curb the army's broad powers also brought out thousands of adherents to secular parties in a rare display of opposition unity.
The high turnout piled pressure on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt's ruling authority, to scrap a plan that would give it almost complete control over the process of drafting a new constitution and to set a date for presidential elections that would mark its departure from power.
“Demands of the public are set and will never be negotiated,” said Mohamed Selim el Awwa, a popular Islamist scholar and the presidential candidate for his moderate Wasat Party. “The people will decide, and no one is above the public's decision.”
Youth groups, unveiled women, leftists, liberals and laborers were sprinkled among the throngs of Islamists, who came primarily from the Muslim Brotherhood and more fundamentalist factions known as Salafis. Protesters said the united stance against the military reminded them of the days before Mubarak fell and the opposition fragmented into rival political parties that will be competing in parliamentary elections that open Nov. 28.
This time, however, there were no chants of “The people and the army are one hand,” the slogan once shouted by protesters who were grateful to the army for seemingly siding with them against Mubarak. In the months since, the military's relationship with most revolutionary factions has soured, though opinion polls show that the generals are still popular among ordinary Egyptians.
“What you see now is a clear message to the military government that it should respect the will of the public,” Ayman Nour, a prominent Mubarak-era dissident and founder of the liberal Ghad Party, told reporters behind the largest of many stages where politicians spoke.
“Calls for a sit-in are being studied, and if the government does not react to our demands, we will escalate. We will do everything possible to save our revolution and accomplish what it called for,” Nour said.
The protesters are demanding that the military discard a proposal floated this month by the military council that would make the drafters of a new constitution accountable to the military rather than to an elected parliament. The ruling generals would control the budget and retain the right to dissolve the body and pick a new one if it doesn't meet a deadline, according to the draft document.
Late Friday, Arabic-language news channels reported that the caretaker government had caved and would shelve the constitutional guidelines debate until after the elections. However, the Cabinet issued an official denial of the reports, and the matter still appeared to be unresolved.
“We don't want the military council to try to stay in power,” said Norhan el Banna, 23, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood who was in Tahrir Square. “The most important thing we came here for is to demand the transfer of power to a central civilian government.”
Despite the hand-in-hand public appearance of Islamist and liberal or centrist political figures at Tahrir Square, protesters said they didn't expect Friday's fragile alliance to endure. Liberals and moderates grumbled about Tahrir Square being taken over by “the beards,” a snide reference to Islamists. Activists complained that Islamist campaigning and proselytizing diluted the rally's focus on the military.
“Is that what they call unity?” asked Abdalla Saadawi, a revolutionary who belongs to the liberal April 6 Democratic Front. He gestured toward a stage where a Salafi politician was promising to establish “an Islamic state that will bring justice and equality to this country, after years of suppression and humility.”
“They came here to call for an Islamic state and promote their parties and agendas before elections,” Saadawi said bitterly. “They don't believe in any alliance or unity with liberals or democrats.”
Near one stage, a middle-aged clean-shaven man grew incensed at the posturing of the Salafis and began shouting at some of them, decrying their views as backward and dangerous for Egypt.
“Why don't we just kill all the foreigners now? Why don't we destroy the temples at Luxor?” the man yelled at the Salafis before storming off.
The strong Islamist turnout Friday underscored the influence religious groups wield leading up to the elections. Their noted organizational skills were on display again Friday, with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist blocs offering free bus rides to bring in protesters from far-flung cities.
“I took a bus from my hometown of Mansoura expecting to witness a unity rally; I found the complete opposite on the bus,” said Ahmed Amer, 24, a doctor who traveled about 200 miles to join the protest.
“There were around 20 bearded sheikhs on the bus who were calling for an Islamic state,” Amer said. “I tried talking to them about the demands that brought us here. They insisted that their sole demand is an Islamic state.”
(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent. Hannah Allam in Cairo contributed.)
© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services