Tens of thousands of Egyptians returned to Tahrir Square today to demand a quick transition to civilian rule. In a show of strength against the military junta's attempt to hold on to power, they challenged the military's ground rules for the new constitution and called for presidential elections by April 2012 – nearly a year earlier than the military's timeline.
The protest was called by the Muslim Brotherhood and other conservative Islamist groups, and the majority of the protesters appeared to be from Islamist groups. But enough Egyptians of all persuasions showed up that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will find it hard to ignore or dismiss their demands.
"We've had 60 years of military dictators," said Eman Abd El Hadi as she stood amid the crush of people in Tahrir. "This is the first time we demand [a leader] not from the military. We must have a civilian president."
Many protesters held signs that read “One demand: the transfer of power.” But in a reminder of the deep divisions that could complicate the transition, followers of a conservative strain of Islam, known as salafis, also waved religious banners and shouted, “the Quran is our constitution.” Some protesters complained that salafis had jeopardized the united front against military rule by introducing a religious agenda off-putting to liberals and secularists.
Such tensions have led some to say that liberal and secular parties must decide which is the lesser evil: a strong military hand in running the country, or an Islamist-dominated government
SCAF likely to delay presidential elections until 2013
The military council took power when former President Hosni Mubarak was toppled by a popular uprising in February and promised to hold elections and transfer power to a civilian government within six months. But it has repeatedly delayed that timeline, and now says it will remain in control until a new president is elected, which under the council’s timeline is not likely to happen until 2013.
“We want an Egyptian civilian ruler. That’s it,” said Saleem Mahmoud Abdel Meguid, another protester. “We want to finally live with dignity.”
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Earlier this month the interim government, which answers to the military council, showed political parties a document intended to lay the ground rules for the new constitution, which is due to be written next year. Political figures were shocked to find that the document included articles that would give the military vast power, make it unaccountable to parliament, and reduce the parliament’s role in writing the next constitution.
The Muslim Brotherhood, confident that it will gain a strong position in parliament through elections scheduled to start Nov. 28, and eager to play a large role in writing the next constitution, rejected the document and called for the protest in a showdown with the military council.
Liberals, secularists face choice: Military or Islamists?
Many liberal and secular parties also rejected the military’s grasp at power. But they are also wary of Islamist groups, and worry that those groups will restrict freedoms if they have a large role in writing the constitution.
The military drafted the constitutional principles document partly in response to requests by liberal groups for a sort of “bill of rights” that would be guaranteed in the next constitution.
Some liberal and leftist party leaders and candidates say they are willing to put up with a larger-than-desirable role for the military in politics rather than rule by Islamists. Others refuse.
“I, as a Muslim, am afraid of the salafis. But I can’t say that the alternative is to approve of military rule,” said Hadeel Khater as she held signs against the military rule in Tahrir. “If a salafi comes to power through democracy, we can vote him out in the next election. But if a military dictator comes, there is no way to get him out.”