CAIRO — Tens of thousands of Egyptians led by hard-line Islamists escalated their protests Friday over the appointment of a Coptic Christian governor in southern Egypt.
The largest demonstrations so far in the campaign to unseat the governor of Qena province coincided with Good Friday services for most of Egypt's estimated 10 million Christians.
Since President Hosni Mubarak's ouster in February after an 18-day popular uprising, ultraconservative Islamist groups have been flexing their muscles and vowing to take a more active political role as Egypt charts its transition to democracy.
Protesters streamed out of Friday's Muslim prayer services in Qena and gathered in front of the governor's office and at other public squares, calling for the newly appointed Emad Mikhail to be replaced by a Muslim governor.
During the latest of more than a week of protests, crowds barricaded vital train lines, blocked main roads and took over government buildings. Organizers had called for 1 million people to turn out.
The bulk of the protesters are driven by a sectarian cause, believing it is not proper for a Christian to govern Muslims, who make up the majority of the population.
Egypt's interim prime minister sent a key government minister in charge of security to meet with the protesters but he failed to persuade them to clear roads and train lines.
The protesters are not solely Islamists. The crowds even included Christians who object to the governor on the basis that Christian leaders often fail to adequately defend their cause because they feel compelled to side with Muslims in sectarian disputes to demonstrate good intentions.
They cited the previous Christian governor, who they say was a "complete failure," according to one priest who joined the protests and asked not to be identified for security reasons.
Coptic Christians make up an estimated 10 percent of Egypt's population of nearly 80 million and complain of discrimination. Relations between the two faiths plunged to new lows after a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a Coptic church in Alexandria on Jan. 1, killing 21 people and injuring 100 others.
The attack set off days of protests. Sectarian clashes also broke out in the aftermath of Mubarak's ouster.
Another segment of Friday's crowd of protesters objects to the governor because he once served as a high-ranking officer in the police force, which has one of the worst reputations for abuse during Mubarak's three-decade rule, thought Mikhail was not among dozens of security officials now under detention over various allegations including killings of protesters.