CAIRO – Several thousand mostly hard-line Islamists protested in Cairo on Friday against a recent wave of violent anti-government protests, while liberal activists staged a smaller demonstration across town to call for accountability and justice from the country's leaders.
The parallel rallies mirror the deep divisions that have plagued Egypt in the two years since longtime autocrat Hosni Mubark's ouster, leaving the country's politics polarized and its economy battered by the continuous turmoil in the streets.
The current cycle of unrest erupted three weeks ago around the second anniversary of the uprising that toppled Mubarak. The opposition-led protests against Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, who was elected in June, accusing him and his Muslim Brotherhood group of trying to monopolize power.
The opposition also wants Morsi to amend a contentious constitution that was passed in a nationwide vote late last year after the president's Islamist allies rushed to finalize and approve the document in a drafting committee. The president and his backers counter that the opposition's relentless protests calling for reform have hurt the country's ailing economy and made actually implementing changes impossible.
On Friday, some 5,000 Morsi's supporters gathered in front of Cairo University for a rally, dubbed "No to violence." The protest is largely seen as a denunciation of the anti-government demonstrations in recent weeks that have frequently turned violent, leaving more than 70 people dead.
"I would like to tell the people who are attacking the police by throwing firebombs at them that this is unacceptable," said protester Mahmoud Mamdouh. "These are our people and these buildings that are getting destroyed are our property."
Some of the demonstrators Friday held banners that read: "People want an iron fist" and "Yes to Islamic law." Others chanted "People want the law of God to be implemented."
The rally was organized by Gamaa Islamiya, an ex-jihadist group whose members were imprisoned for decades under the former regime. The group's political party only won a small number of seats in last year's parliamentary elections, but has a widespread network of supporters across Egypt.
The demonstration was not expected to reach massive numbers because Egypt's most powerful Islamist parties are not officially participating. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood backers said they will only have a symbolic presence at the protest while the more conservative Salafi parties weren't taking part, although some leaders were present.
Many of the protesters held the Koran and waved pictures of Morsi and Omar Abdel-Rahman, the 73-year-old blind sheik who was the spiritual leader of the Gamaa, as well as one of the men convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He has been serving a life sentence in the United States since 1995.
Across town, a smaller crowd of liberal activists rallied outside the Qasr al-Kobba palace, one of the president's secondary palaces. It is considered symbolic like the main palace where clashes between police and protesters have been taking place for weeks.
Friday's protest, which does not officially include the main opposition coalition, was led mostly by youth who waved pictures of protesters killed in past demonstrations. Much of the anger directed at the government stems from frustration with the pace of reform under the new president as well as the continued killing of unarmed protesters by police.
This week, the U.S. State Department's human rights envoy told reporters in Cairo that he met with Egyptian officials to express Washington's concern about reports that police have used excessive force to suppress protests, including cases where demonstrators were violent but not lethal.
Also this week, Moody's downgraded five Egyptian banks, citing "the weakening capacity of the Egyptian authorities to support the government-owned banks." Egypt's foreign currency reserves have fallen below the central bank's "critical minimum" to $13.61 billion, threatening the country's ability to secure a nearly $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund that could free up other loan requests.