Sunday, July 31, 2011

Egypt 'unity' rally turns into Islamist show of strength

Mohannad Sabry | McClatchy Newspapers

CAIRO — A demonstration Friday intended to show unity among Egypt's many opposition political movements instead turned into a show of strength for the country's Islamists, underscoring jitters here that elections in the fall will lead to rising influence for conservative Muslim adherents.

Tens of thousands of bearded men and women with their faces fully covered, followers of Islam's Salafi tradition, poured into Cairo's Tahrir Square, where their chants of "The people demand the laws of Allah" drowned out any competing ideology.

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AHard-line Muslim clerics called for an Islamic state from several stages that had been erected by the Muslim Brotherhood and other conservative Islamist movements, while thousands of followers marched around Tahrir Square repeating the clerics' call: "Islamic, Islamic, not socialist, and not communist."

Others displayed banners with Islamic slogans "Allah is Great," and "No god but Allah."

By Friday afternoon, many of the secular political followers who also had gathered for the demonstration had abandoned the square.

"We agreed with the Brotherhood and the Salafis over the past week to come to Tahrir Square today, unite, and pressure the government to work on reform. They lied to us and came down to promote themselves and show off their power," said Youssef Adel, a 23-year-old member of the liberal Youth for Justice and Freedom group.

Earlier in the day, a crowd of Salafi men hurled rocks and bottles at the stage Youth for Justice and Freedom had set up.

"The Salafis attacked us because we were calling for the demands of the revolution," Adel said.

Later, 34 political parties and youth movements, among them some of the principal groups that spurred the original demonstrations that led to the toppling in February of President Hosni Mubarak, announced their withdrawal from the demonstration to protest the Islamist takeover. Among the groups were the April 6 Movement, Kefaya, the Egyptian Labor Party, the Egyptian Socialist Party and the Revolution Youth Coalition.

"The Islamist movements ignored the agreement between all political and community currents to unite against the attempts of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to divide us and tarnish the reputation of the revolutionaries," the groups said in a signed statement.

Adel, an agricultural engineer who has been protesting on Tahrir Square for months, said that his group decided to pull out of the square to avoid clashing with the Islamists. "We did not come here to confront anyone," Adel said.

What role conservative Islam will have in a future Egyptian government has been a major subject of discussion in Egypt in the months since Mubarak was toppled. Under Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood was officially outlawed, and Islamists were the frequent targets of police raids and long jail sentences.

In the months since Mubarak's fall, however, fundamentalists have shown themselves increasingly interested in flexing their political muscles. At least one Islamist party has been registered with the government, and Salafis, who had long eschewed political involvement, now openly discuss electoral alliances. Salafi groups also are providing services in poor neighborhoods in an effort to improve their reputation after years of being condemned by the Mubarak government as violent extremists.

Clashes between the secular groups and the Islamists were all but certain.

Earlier this week, Egypt's Islamic movements expressed concerns that Egypt's current ruling body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, was considering changes to the country's constitution, whose second article defines Egypt as an Islamic state and specifies Islam as the main source of legislation.

"I came down to express my rejection of any change to the second article of the constitution or the passage of any laws that would allow the writing of a new constitution," said Ahmed Effat, 28. "Such laws should be put to a public referendum or passed by the coming elected parliament."

Effat, a Web designer who wears the long beard of a Salafi, arrived in Tahrir Square at 6 a.m. and said he planned to spend his day taking part in the protests.

"The government thinks that we are weak because we don't come out and sit in for weeks blocking traffic in main squares," he said. "We came down in hundreds of thousands to show them our power."

Thousands of the Islamists from outside Cairo arrived at the demonstration by bus, taking advantage of a $4 fare that the Muslim Brotherhood announced Thursday on its website.

"Today is a proof to everyone that Egypt is an Islamic state and will remain Islamic," said Mohamed al Iraqi, a 22-year-old Muslim Brotherhood member. "No one forced those thousands to come down and protest. They came down to assure that their country will remain Islamic."

Iraqi, a pharmacy student who carried a flag emblazoned with "Allah is Great," said members of other religions should have no concerns about the primacy of Islam.

"Muslim minorities live under Christian constitutions all over the world," he said. "Why does the Christian minority refuse to live under a fair Muslim constitution in Egypt, and why is the world supporting them?"

Members of Salafi movements took over the security at some of the entrances to the square, checking the IDs and frisking anyone crossing security barriers.

One bearded Salafi who wore a tag identifying him as a member of the "Square Organization Committee" refused to talk to a reporter once he learned the reporter worked for a U.S.-based news organization.

"If you worked for the most hated Egyptian newspaper I would have talked to you, but American media, I don't speak with your kind," he said. Then he walked away.

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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