In Egypt, crowds urge end to military rule

Tens of thousands of protesters flooded into Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday to push Egypt’s military rulers to hand over power to elected officials after the caretaker government floated a controversial proposal this month that would leave the armed forces unaccountable to an elected parliament.

The demonstration was one of the largest since the 18-day revolt last winter that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, and it underscored the changes that have occurred since those participating in the uprising chanted, “The people and the army are one hand.”

The protesters Friday were mainly Islamists, some bused in from across the capital and the country to voice opposition to a draft document issued under the auspices of the military council to guide the writing of a new constitution. Some liberals have advocated such guidance, seeing it as a potential bulwark against religious fundamentalists, but Islamists have described it as undemocratic, saying it marks an expansion of military powers and robs an elected body of the responsibility to shape the constitution.

But on Friday, contingents representing youth groups, liberals and secularists were calling for the same goal as the Islamists: to hold a presidential election quickly and end military rule by April 2012 rather than in 2013, as the council has proposed.

Nahed Shukri, 39, a social studies teacher, said the turnout of people of all ages, classes and allegiances reminded her of the days when Egyptians were united against Mubarak.

“We are unified against people who try to take advantage of us,” she said. “The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is taking advantage of us, and now we are regrouping. I can see that we are one today.”

Protesters handed out fliers and hoisted pictures of a prominent imprisoned blogger, Alaa Abdel Fattah, who was jailed for his refusal to respond to a military prosecutor’s questions about his alleged role in recent sectarian clashes. They held up portraits of the head of the military council, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, with his face crossed out and cartoons depicting him clinking cups of blood with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose government is accused of killing thousands of protesters in his country.

“Who does this country belong to: the Egyptian people or the military council?” asked Mohammed Abdul Rahi, 40, an accountant. “What’s important is our choice, and we’re ready to pay the price of blood to make sure we get a choice. We will move on the military council.”

Islamists, especially Salafists, who follow a literalist form of Islam and stand out with their long beards and traditional clothing, dominated the crowd and called for Islamist rule. Nearby, socialists who were also urging an end to military rule appeared visibly uncomfortable with the Islamic chants and the calls for religious law.

“We want the handover of power,” said Samir Salim, a socialist. “But we want democracy, not an Islamist state.”

Demonstrations also were held in the coastal city of Alexandria.

The controversy over the draft document could disrupt parliamentary elections, which are set to begin Nov. 28 and unfold over six stages until March. The caretaker government said the matter was under discussion and denied reports that the document had been withdrawn.

Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood, the nation’s best-
organized political force
, have vowed not to stop their protests until the document is withdrawn. Essam el-Erian, vice president of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, voiced optimism that popular pressure would force the military’s hand over the issue, despite the generally high levels of support for the ruling council reflected in surveys conducted since Mubarak’s ouster.

“I think the military will meet our demands,” Erian said. “Unfortunately, some intellectuals and elites are advocating this document because they fear the Islamists. They are undemocratic. It’s clear the real democrats are the Islamists.”

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

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