Islamist show of force in Egypt's Tahrir Square angers activists

Salafis, who follow an ultraconservative brand of Islam, had agreed to a set of unified demands for today's rally with secular activists. But they reneged, even shouting pro-military chants.

Khalil Hamra/AP
A protester waves an Egyptian flag that reads 'We Love Egypt' during a demonstration after Friday prayers in Tahrir Square where many have set up protest tent camps in the main city square in Cairo, Egypt, on July 29.

A rally that was supposed to demonstrate unity between Egypt’s Islamist and secular liberal forces instead showcased the divide between the two.

Thousands of Islamists flooded into Cairo's Tahrir Square today, dominating the protest and chanting slogans about turning Egypt into an Islamic state governed by sharia, or Islamic law.

“We come from all of Egypt’s governorates. We are thousands, and we are here to break our silence, and to say that we want Egypt to be an Islamic country," said one man with a long robe, beard, and shaved mustache typical of ultraconservative Salafi Muslims. "We will not accept that the minority impose its will on the majority.”

Neither he nor his five companions huddling under the shade of a scraggly tree in Tahrir would say where they came from or give their names, though they said they had been bused in from outside Cairo.

The Islamists' show of force angered the secular and liberal activists who have camped out in the square for weeks now to demand a faster pace of reform from Egypt's interim military rulers. It also evoked latent fears that Islamists will try to dominate Egyptian politics after the revolution.

“They want to Islamicize the whole nation, or have the constitution written by their own hands,” said Fady Phillip, whose group has been in Tahrir since July 6. “They’re trying to tell the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that, 'We’re still here and we still have the last word.' "

As he spoke, men kicked at the wall of the tent he was standing in and a scuffle broke out.

But the strident religious tone of the Islamists, many of whom appeared to be from the ultraconservative Salafi strain of Islam, will likely backfire, says Ibrahim El Houdaiby, an analyst who studies Islamist groups.

“They have mobilized thousands or tens of thousands … but they have provoked millions of others," he says. "So now you will have people who want to move against the Salafis, who were neutral, not mobilized, before.”

Salafis renege on deal to ensure unified protest

Salafis had verbally agreed to an accord brokered between Islamist groups and some liberal and secular groups this week to agree on a unified set of demands today – an effort to avoid clashes between the two sides after Islamists announced plans for a large rally.

Those demands included calling for the end of military trials for civilians and justice for the former regime officials responsible for the killing of protesters during the uprising that swept former President Hosni Mubarak from power in February.

But as thousands filled Tahrir Friday, Salafi groups broke that agreement, failing to mention most of the agreed-upon demands and instead raising provocative religious slogans and pro-military chants – a marked change from previous protests.

“The people want sharia!” many chanted. Some liberal and secular activist groups said their members had largely retreated out of the square to avoid “provocation” and possible clashes.

Some of the liberal activists, who have been highly critical of the military's rule, argue that Islamist groups – particularly the Muslim Brotherhood – have cut a deal with the military. The Brotherhood has not participated in the Tahrir sit-in, and has been reluctant to criticize the military, a stance that could also reflect a growing public frustration with protests. A top general said in remarks at the US Institute of Peace this week that the Brotherhood did not pose a threat to democracy.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders appeared to stick to the agreement with secular and liberal forces. Some were even in the square trying to persuade Salafi leaders to stop the religious slogans Friday.

Mr. Houdaiby says another outcome of Friday’s protest may be a widening of the gap between more extreme Islamist groups like the Salafis from more moderate groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood will likely now distance itself from the Salafis, and “the breadth of the Egyptian national movement will be redefined to include some Islamist elements, and clearly exclude others,” he says.

'We're here to demand the rights of all Egyptians'

The tens of thousands who came to the square Friday braved scorching weather. Every shred of shade was occupied by sweating protesters.

Among the protesters was Mustafa El Damasy, who sat in the shade of a tent with his daughter, Fatima. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s new Freedom and Justice party, he had come by bus from Mansoura, in the Nile Delta region. He said his group included at least 10 buses of party members.

“We’re here to demand the rights of all Egyptians,” he said, before agreeing with the speech coming from a nearby stage that called for Egypt to become an Islamic state ruled by sharia. “We’ve also come to say no to the constitutional declaration,” he said.

He was referring to a declaration of supra-constitutional principles that the Army has said it will issue to ensure certain rights before parliamentary elections in the fall. The declaration is seen as a concession to liberal groups, which had called for the constitution to be drafted before elections are held. Some worry that if Islamists dominate the parliament due to be elected in November, they will influence the writing of the constitution.

Islamists had originally called today's rally to oppose the constitutional declaration, before making the deal with liberal and secular activists for unified demands.

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