CAIRO — Tens of thousands of Egyptians flocked Friday to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the spot where they overthrew autocrat Hosni Mubarak last year and a symbol of the strength that flows from unity. But this time, the square served as a stage for the discord generated by the country’s troubled transition to democracy.
Just over a month before a scheduled presidential election, Egypt is in political disarray following the disqualification of 10 candidates by a panel of Mubarak-era judges, and revolutionaries of all backgrounds are questioning where to go from here. But while Friday’s rally coalesced around a common theme — the call for an end to military rule — the various Islamist, liberal, leftist and youth groups taking part remained divided over the means to that end. Some called for delaying the election, while others pressed for an immediate transfer of power to parliament.
“Today was the last chance to correct this sabotaged transition,” said Khalil al-Anani, an Egypt expert at Britain’s Durham University. “But each group went to Tahrir with a different agenda. The gap of mistrust can’t be bridged just through protests.” Anani noted that the differences are genuine and deep and will require “political agreement” if they are to be overcome.
The critics of military rule who filled the square Friday noted the generals’ year-long efforts to head off a handover of power. During their tenure, more than 100 people have been killed in crackdowns on protests. Thousands of civilians have been detained and tried in military courts, and women were subjected to virginity tests in detention. The newly elected parliament remains largely powerless. The country still lacks a constitution, and there is no sign that the document will be completed soon, as Islamists and liberals vie over the composition of the assembly tasked with writing it and the military rulers seek to influence the outcome.
The latest blow to Egyptians’ democratic aspirations was the upending of the presidential campaign this week. The shock of the electoral commission’s move — which effectively eliminated from contention the top candidate from each main political faction — sparked so much outrage that many hoped it might unify the military’s opponents, forcing the generals to dissolve the panel and order a review of its ruling. The Muslim Brotherhood’s top candidate, Khairat el-Shater, who was disqualified because he was a political prisoner under Mubarak, had said this week that Friday would mark “the real handover of power.”
It remained unclear Friday exactly how the parties would react. The disqualification of
the ultraconservative preacher Hazem Abu Ismail left the minority Salafists with no candidate who truly reflects their puritanical form of Islam. The Brotherhood’s leaders have denounced the vote as a sham but appeared ready to keep their backup candidate in the race, even as other revolutionaries vow to boycott it if nothing changes.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is between two bitter options, whether to continue in the presidential race with the possibility of losing the revolutionary forces’ support or to sacrifice the presidency to save the revolution,” Anani said.
But in Tahrir Square, demonstrators voiced more division than unity, with many liberals, Salafists and moderate Islamists accusing the Brotherhood of being more focused on its own political ascendancy than on pushing back against the military.
Brotherhood followers who had traveled by bus from across the country to protest Shater’s disqualification drew scowls from other revolutionaries, who said they had returned to the streets for one man, rather than the nation, after a year of holding aloof.
Still, Shater’s picture had been swapped out on posters and
T-shirts for that of the Brotherhood’s backup — but much less popular — candidate, Mohammed Morsi. Although the movement has joined calls for an end to military rule and the dissolution of the electoral commission, it has no plans to disrupt the May 23-24 election and says it does not want to delay the writing of the constitution.
“You took power in the parliament, and you’ve done nothing,” a man told Mohammed Tantawi, a Brotherhood supporter wearing a picture of Morsi. “You’re like the National Democratic Party,” he added, referring to Mubarak’s now-defunct political party.
Tantawi shook his head as other Brotherhood supporters came to his defense.
“Everyone is saying, ‘Oh, the Brotherhood is no good,’ but we have to be one hand,” said Rufeida Ibrahim, a 16-year-old Brotherhood supporter whose father was jailed under Mubarak for belonging to the banned group. “The Brotherhood never sought power. We were tortured for 80 years, and we don’t want that again. We don’t want the regime to come back.”
Nearby, three stylish women wearing designer sunglasses surveyed the crowd. This was not what they wanted when they joined the protest, they said. The streets were dirty, the vendors were noisy, and every group rushed past with bullhorns calling for something different.
“Some people are here for one person, not the general goal,” said Iman Ibrahim, 42, nodding toward a Brotherhood protester.
A prominent Salafist preacher urged people to unite, regardless of their beliefs, as he sat in his wheelchair with a crowd of followers around him.
“I want all the factions of the people to become a coalition,” Mohammed Abd el-Maksoud said. “The diversity and the rifts are what helps them take us out.”
In a middle-class neighborhood outside the square, Mohammed Monsef, 26, scoffed at all the protesters.
“Everyone has a different demand. How can it be effective?” he said. “Salafists are protesting because of Hazem Abu Ismail’s elimination. Liberals are out for God knows what reasons. They’re all looking out for themselves. Nobody is looking out for Egypt.”
Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.