Anthony Shadid reports:
Tens of thousands of Egyptian Islamists poured into Tahrir Square on Friday calling for a state bound by strict religious law and delivering a persuasive show of force in a turbulent country showing deep divisions and growing signs of polarization.
The shape of Egypt five months into its revolution remains distinctly undecided, and Islamists have long been the best organized political force in this religiously conservative country. Some activists speculated that their show of strength would serve as a jolt to the secular forces who helped to start the revolution but who remain divided, largely ineffectual and woefully unprepared for coming elections.
Others speculated that it might force groups to pick sides in a country where the glow of unity after President Hosni Mubarak’s fall in February has dimmed amid recriminations over the pace, style and substance of change.
“Islamic, Islamic,” went a popular chant. “Neither secular nor liberal.”
After days of negotiations between the rival factions, the demonstration Friday had been billed as a show of national unity, but adherents to a spectrum of religious movements — from the most puritan and conservative, known as Salafists, to the comparatively more moderate Muslim Brotherhood — vastly outnumbered other voices in a sun-drenched Tahrir Square. The numbers of Salafists, in particular, represented the most definitive declaration yet that they represent a formidable force in Egyptian politics, riding an ascent since the revolution that has surprised and unnerved many secular and liberal activists — and poses new challenges to the Muslim Brotherhood.
“It’s simple,” said Mohammed Awad, a 28-year-old accountant. “We’re stronger than any other force in the country, and we’ve made that clear on this day.”
Steve Negus at The Arabist adds:
A few notes on yesterday’s demonstration in Tahrir, generally viewed as an Islamist show of force. First, the numbers. Based on visual cues (beards, galabiyas), signs and slogans I’m guessing at least 90 percent of those in Tahrir were affiliated with the Islamists, and at least half of those were Salafi. I’m guessing also that this was one of the half dozen largest Tahrir “million” rallies since January. The square wasn’t elbow-to-elbow all the way through, but it was elbow-to-elbow in some spots, and a lot of people stayed camped out on downtown streets where they had gone to pray. I understand why the numbers have alarmed revolutionaries who had come to think of the square as their own space.
There have been some reports that Salafis tried to forcefully take control of a speakers’ stage, but the parts of the demonstration which I witnessed were peaceful. I saw no instances of bullying. Islamists and non-Islamists mingled and argued. I saw one angry anti-Islamist marching up Qasr al-Aini between ranks of weary demonstrators shouting “Egypt, my kind mother/I’m not leaving you to the Brothers!”, yet she did not get much of a reaction.
The Salafis’ slogans were provocative. I didn’t hear the “Obama, Obama, we’re all Osama” or “Shut up secularists!” lines that journalists reported, nor did I see Saudi flags. But the tone of what I did here was pretty defiantly affirmative of an Islamic identity for Egypt, ie, not a civic one. “Raise your head high! You’re a Muslim!” might not sound so bad unless you realize it’s a variation on a far more Christian-friendly original, “Raise your head high. You’re an Egyptian”.
A bit of background: Islamist groups including both Brothers and Salafis had originally planned a Friday rally to oppose the idea of “supra-constitutional principles” proposed by some left/liberals — which as they saw it, was a way for Tahrir revolutionaries to decide what was going to be in the constitution before any elections, and before anyone else had a chance to contribute. But the mostly leftist and liberal groups occupying Tahrir weren’t going to vacate the square, so it looked like there were going to be two rival demonstrations. Islamist and non-Islamists got together and agreed to merge the two rallies and focus on things with which they could agree — ie, swifter trials for officials, justice for the “martyrs”. But the demonstrators to whom I spoke, at least the Islamist ones, were clear that they were there to oppose the supra-constitutional principles, and for Egypt to “remain” Islamic.
Many liberals and leftists considered this to be a bit of an ambush. Look at it from the Salafi point of view, though. They’re already worried that the established political forces, none of whom have got to where they are through elections, are going to shape the constitution behind their backs. They finally get a chance to organize an Islamist show of force to insist that they be listened to, but then it’s decided that they can’t actually be Islamist at it. So, it would have been a minor miracle had the Salafis stuck to the program, and chanted only anodyne, uncontroversial slogans.