CAIRO — Tens of thousands of ultraconservative Muslims in long beards, robes and prayer caps thronged Cairo's central Tahrir Square in a massive show of force Friday, calling for the implementation of strict Islamic laws and sparring with liberal activists over their visions for a post-revolution Egypt.
It was the first rally with religious overtones in Egypt, and one of the largest, since the uprising that forced President Hosni Mubarak to step down in mid-February. The strong showing by the Islamists demonstrated their powerful organizational abilities, which will likely help them in parliamentary elections later this year.
"Islamic. Islamic. Not Western or Eastern. No liberal or secular," chants of Salafis, who follow a strict form of Islam, echoed through the square. Others shouted: "With our soul and blood we defend you Islam."
They unfurled an Egyptian flag, removing the central emblem of an eagle and replacing the Islamic slogan: "There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet," similar to the insignia on the Saudi flag.
The youth activists who have been at the helm of mass protests calling for faster change from the country's interim military rulers withdrew from the rally soon after Friday prayers, accusing the Islamists of violating an agreement to avoid divisive issues.
"While the civil organizations are trying to respect the effort to complete the revolution by unifying the ranks, the Islamic groups insisted on breaking the unity and assisting the military council in a deal that I think will divide this country in two," said liberal activist Mustafa Shawki. "This is what we were afraid of."
Several hundred protesters, mainly liberal and leftist groups, have camped out at the square for more than three weeks, demanding swifter justice for those blamed in the killing of nearly 900 protesters during the 18-day uprising and more measures to ensure Mubarak loyalists are purged from the government. It was a crowd vocally critical of the military council, which they accused of protecting Mubarak's regime.
Most of the Islamic groups, however, say the military needs time to break with the past.
The decision by the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's best organized political force, to participate significantly boosted the turnout. But instead of a day of unity as had been advertised, the Islamists decided to flex their muscle, using the epicenter of the protests to press demands for a strict version of Islamic law.
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Some Salafi Islamist groups mobilized their members to the square to oppose the adoption of a set of guidelines for drafting a new constitution after parliamentary elections later this year. Buses from a number of cities transported followers, many who were in the square for the first time.
Liberal parties are worried religious groups will win a large share of parliament and force an Islamic influence on the constitution. The Islamists say nothing should restrict the newly elected parliament's right to oversee the process of drafting the document.
"The liberals are talking about a civil state. This won't work in Egypt," said Tarek Shaheen, a 31-year-old resident of Ismailiya.