Tens of thousands of Egyptians rallied Friday in Cairo's Tahrir square with Islamists in the forefront to protest against what they say are attempts by the country's military rulers to designate themselves as the guardians of a new Egypt. It was one of the largest rallies in Egypt in recent months.
Most rallies in Tahrir have been led by liberal- or left-leaning groups. But Friday's rally was dominated by the country's most organized political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has rarely come out in full force since the protests that forced President Hosni Mubarak to step down in February.
The Brotherhood had until recently avoided confrontation with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, but now warns of escalating its protest campaign if plans to give permanent political powers to the military are not scrapped.
“The army has no role in ruling people. Its only job is to protect the country. We want civilian rule chosen through democracy,” said Hani Hegazi, a 28-year old Brotherhood member who traveled by bus to Tahrir from the Delta province of el-Beheira.
Banners read: “Down with military rule. Egypt our country is not a military camp.” Some demonstrators flew the Egyptian flag, while others including ultraconservative Salafis waved a banner declaring Islam's holy book, the Quran, to be “our constitution.”
The rally was called to protest a document floated by the government which declares the military the guardian of “constitutional legitimacy,” suggesting the armed forces could have the final word on major policies even after a new president is elected. The document, which includes guiding principles for Egypt's new constitution, also introduces clauses that would shield it from civilian oversight.
Most of Egypt's pro-democracy groups object to the document, calling it an attempt to perpetuate military rule past the post-Mubarak transitional period which is supposed to end with the election of a new parliament and a new president.
In addition to the Brotherhood, Salafis, left- and liberal-leaning groups such as the April 6 movement and other youth revolutionary alliances joined the rally, demanding a timetable for the end of military rule, which began in February.
They have called for marches from mosques around Egypt to major squares, dubbing it the “Friday of the Single Demand” — that demand being a clear date for the transfer of power to civilian rule. Many groups have planned to hold an open ended sit-in until a date has been set.
The Brotherhood says the document reinforces “dictatorship.”
“It contains articles that rob the people of their sovereignty and reinforces dictatorship. It constitutes a coup against the principles and goals of the January 25 revolution,” the group said in a statement issued Wednesday. Last-minute negotiations between the government and the Brotherhood failed to stave off their participation in the rally, or scrap the document.
The show of force comes 10 days before the country's first parliamentary elections since Mubarak stepped down, when a Brotherhood-affiliated political party is expected to fare well.
Anger against the Supreme Council has been building up over their management of the transition period. Many complain that the generals are recreating the Mubarak regime by cracking down on opponents, by refusing to order a thorough reform of the security services, and by monopolizing decision making. Islamists and liberals alike now express fear that the military council wants to hold on to power, a claim denied by the generals.
The military council had promised to transfer power to an elected civilian government within six months of Mubarak's ouster. But according to a vague timetable in place, it may not be until early 2013 that a president is elected. Only the dates for the parliamentary elections, which are due to begin in ten days and which will drag into March, are yet known.
Walid Farouk, 32, who wore the heavy beard and traditional robe of the ultraconservative Salafi trend, said that Egypt had seen nothing good from military rule since the army first took power in 1952.
“All of us are scared that the army could try to hold on to power,” he said. “It is time for a civilian government.”
The writing of Egypt's constitution has been a divisive issue, and details of who will write it and what it contains are at the heart of recent rallies.
Some liberals have supported the idea of writing guiding principles for the constitution, fearing that a parliament controlled by Islamists would insert religious principles into the document.
Even now, some liberals remain opposed to the Friday rally, saying a document is necessary to detail how members of the assembly are to be chosen, and controversial clauses can be negotiated.
But many others have come to distrust the military's Supreme Council at least as much they distrust the Islamists.
At Friday's rally, protesters are also expected to celebrate the birthday of one of the most prominent revolutionary to be jailed by the military prosecutor. Alaa Abdel-Fattah, a famous blogger and activist, was detained late last months for refusing to answer to the military prosecution on his alleged role in sectarian violence that left 27, mostly Christians, dead. He turned 30 on Friday.
Many hold the military responsible for the violence, and see Abdel-Fattah's detention as an attempt to find a scapegoat and discredit activists.