CAIRO – More than 10,000 Egyptians marched from mosques and protested in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday in a show of strength by Islamists, demanding the country’s ruling generals bar Hosni Mubarak’s former spy chief and other ousted regime officials from running in next month’s presidential elections.
The rally was the first major demonstration in Egypt in months and was a turnaround for the Islamists, who had abandoned street protests, particularly after they gained domination of parliament in elections late last year, and pursued a strategy of coexistence with the military even during violent army crackdowns on pro-democracy activists.
But the struggle for power has heated up with the approach of next month’s presidential vote, in which Islamists see their chance to capture Egypt’s highest post. In response, one of the most powerful members of Mubarak’s inner circle â€” former intelligence chief and vice-president Omar Suleiman â€” has entered the race, proclaiming he wants to prevent Islamist rule.
Friday’s rally dubbed “Protecting the Revolution,” organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafi movement, further underlined the difficult situation of Egypt’s liberals and leftists. Most of them also reject Suleiman, seeing him as a return of the Mubarak regime. But they accuse the Islamists of trying to monopolize power and of opportunism, cozying up to the ruling generals and only talking of revolution when it suits their interests. Most stayed away from Friday’s protest.
The crowd in Tahrir Square â€” the epicenter of the 18 days of protests last year that led to Mubarak’s ouster â€” was overwhelmingly Islamist. A large banner of a prominent Salafi candidate for president, Hazem Abu Ismail, hung over the crowd, where many wore T-shirts with his image. Many in crowd had the beards of Muslim conservatives, and vendors sold black banners with the Islamic profession of faith, “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet.”
“If Omar Suleiman became a president, it will turn to a pool of blood, and people will stay in the square for 10 years,” said protester Ahmed Murad in front of banners depicting Suleiman as the candidate of the “Zionists.”
Suleiman was Mubarak’s point man on ties with Israel and many see him as symbolic of a friendly Mubarak-era relationship with the Jewish state.
“We didn’t oust Mubarak to get another one,” another protester, Adel Suleiman, said while a crowd nearby carried a black coffin on which protesters wrote, “the people want to oust the remnants,” referring to former regime figures.
Chants of “the people want to bring down the field marshal” rang across the square, referring to the head of the ruling military council Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. Many held banners with pictures of Suleiman and another Mubarak-era presidential candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, with their faces crossed out.
On Thursday, the Islamist-dominated parliament passed a new bill stripping senior Mubarak regime figures from the right to run for office for the next 10 years. The bill was hurriedly put together this week in a bid to disqualify Suleiman but the ruling military council must ratify the bill before it can go into effect.
In response to allegations that Suleiman’s run is backed by the military, Tantawi in press remarks published Friday stressed that the ruling military council “has no prejudices and doesn’t side by any party; it is not part of the ongoing political debate nor does it support any of the presidential candidates.” He did not comment on the legislation to bar regime members.
Suleiman was Mubarak’s most trusted man, serving for years as his intelligence chief. He was appointed as Mubarak’s vice-president briefly during the 18 days of protests last year, and then dropped out of the public eye after Mubarak’s Feb. 11, 2011 fall.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which is Egypt’s strongest political force and holds nearly half of parliament, announced on March 31 that its deputy leader Khairat el-Shater would run for president, reversing an earlier pledge not to seek the office. The move came after weeks of complaints by the Brotherhood that the ruling military was blocking it from wielding power from parliament and preventing it from forming a government.
In what was seen as a countermove backed by the generals, Suleiman announced a week later that he was entering the race for the presidential elections.
Though mistrusted by many as a symbol of Mubarak’s regime, he may draw support from a large swath of the population that fears the rise of the Brotherhood and craves stability after more than a year of turmoil.
The presidential election is due on May 23-24, with a possible runoff on June 16-17. The winner will be announced on June 21, less than two weeks before the July 1 deadline promised by the military to hand over power.
At the same time, the chasm between liberals and Islamists deepened over the past year.
Youth activists accuse the Brotherhood of abandoning the revolution and largely siding with the ruling military over the past year. The Brotherhood largely stayed away from and even outright condemned protests late last year by liberal and leftist activists against the military’s rule that turned into bloody street clashes.
Later, the two camps collided when Islamists used their majority in parliament to pack a 100-member panel tasked with writing Egypt’s new constitution with its followers, prompting the liberals and others to boycott the panel. This week, a Cairo court suspended the panel, saying the manner of its formation violated the current constitutional guidelines.
Ahmed Said, the head of The Free Egyptians party, criticized Islamists’ protests in Tahrir saying that those who are protesting for “protecting the revolution” are the ones who “alienated the opposition” in parliament and who claimed before that “legitimacy is from the parliament only not from the square.”