CAIRO (Reuters) - More than 30 political parties and movements withdrew from a rally on Friday that was organized to send a united message to the ruling army about reform, saying the event was hijacked by Islamist groups.
“Islamic law above the constitution,” read banners in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that was packed with tens of thousands of people. Protesters who fear Islamists will seek to dominate plans to rewrite the constitution demanded they be taken down.
“Islamic, Islamic, we don’t want secular,” they chanted in the square filled with many followers of the strict Salafist interpretation of Islam.
“There are so many (Islamic) beards. We certainly feel imposed upon,” said student Samy Ali, 23. He said Salafists had tried to separate women and men camping there.
Islamists and more liberal groups have diverged on how hard to press the ruling generals for change. They have also been divided over the fate of the constitution, which is to be re-written after parliament is elected later this year.
Liberal groups fear the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s best organized group, and other Islamists will dominate the vote.
A joint statement by more than 30 groups said Islamists and other groups had agreed on demands to make on Friday “to thwart attempts by the military council to divide the revolutionaries and distort their image.” But the groups said “some Islamic currents” violated this agreement.
Abdelrahman al Barr, a senior Brotherhood member, said of the decision by other groups to quit Friday’s rally: “Salafist slogans shouldn’t be a cause for other political forces to withdraw. Everyone is free to say what they feel like.”
But the Brotherhood is home to a broad range of views and some agreed Salafist actions were divisive. “There are certainly some Brotherhood members who are upset over the way Salafist groups have taken over the square,” Brotherhood youth member Amr Salah said in Tahrir.
Friday’s protests in Cairo and other cities had been called to deliver a unified message to the ruling army council, which took over when Hosni Mubarak was ousted on February 11. Many protesters now say it is not delivering on promises to change.
“We agreed on uniting our call for swift elections, resignation of the public prosecutor and the demands of the families of martyrs,” said Mohamed Adel, spokesman of the April 6 movement, one of those which withdrew.
Those killed in the uprising to oust Mubarak are referred to as “martyrs.”
Several groups, including the liberal Wafd party, also said they were withdrawing from a rally in Suez, east of Cairo, because Salafists were using it for their own ends.
In the Sinai Peninsula, where many people own weapons, about 150 people rallied in the town of Al-Arish. Some had banners with Islamic slogans. They fired shots in the air. Security sources said one youth and a policeman were wounded.
Alongside the Islamic slogans, there were other chants in Tahrir on Friday, such as “People and army, hand in hand.”
Some protesters have accused the Brotherhood, which was banned under Mubarak but now enjoys unprecedented freedom, of making a pact with the army. The group denies this although differences over how hard to push the army remain.
Echoing the view held by many Islamists, preacher Mazhar Shaheen said in a sermon in Tahrir: “Our army will remain a red line, because it protected the great revolution ... No one can divide us and the army.”
He said the army should provide a timetable for handing power to civilians. The generals say they are moving as fast as possible to do this and deny dragging their feet.
While the army is expected to hand day-to-day government to civilians after elections, some protesters expect it to keep a hand on power, partly because of its vast business interests. The army has also provided Egypt’s rulers for six decades.
However, the Brotherhood has sought to heal some divisions with other groups. It made a statement of support for the April 6 movement, which in a rare move by the army, was singled out for trying to divide the people and the military. April 6 has been at the forefront of criticism of the military.
“The Brotherhood rejects discrediting and distorting any revolutionary force that chooses to rally peacefully,” Mohamed Beltagy, a member of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said.
One of the persistent protester demands has been for a swifter trial for Mubarak, now set for August 3. Protesters say the army wants to drag it out to protect its former commander-in-chief and the army from public humiliation.
Mubarak has been in hospital in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh since April. He has not been transferred to a prison, as his two sons and other officials have, due to illness.
An official in the hospital in Sharm el-Sheikh said on Friday Mubarak’s condition was “almost stable” but he continued to suffer from severe depression, the official news agency MENA reported. Earlier this week, hospital officials told MENA the former president was weak and refusing to eat solid food.
A source close to Mubarak said on Thursday his lawyer would tell the court in Cairo he was too sick to attend. His two sons, the former interior minister and other officials being tried alongside him are expected to be present.
Additional reporting by Shaimaa Fayed, Patrick Werr and Omar Fahmy; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Sophie Hares