CAIRO – Tens of thousands of protesters packed Cairo's downtown Tahrir Square on Friday in the biggest demonstration in months against the ruling military, aimed at stepping up pressure on the generals to hand over power to civilians and bar ex-regime members from running in upcoming presidential elections.
Islamists and liberals turned out together in force for the protest to show the widespread anger at the military over the country's political chaos ahead of the first presidential elections since the fall of Hosni Mubarak more than a year ago. The confusion has raised suspicions the generals ruling since Mubarak's ouster are manipulating the process to preserve their power, ensure the victory of a pro-military candidate and prevent reform.
"Down with military rule," protesters in Tahrir chanted, and banners draped around the sprawling plaza denounced candidates seen as "feloul," or "remnants" from Mubarak's regime.
Liberals and youth groups called for all factions to agree on an antimilitary "revolution" candidate in the presidential vote, but the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists — who have their own ambitions in the race — refused to sign on.
The Brotherhood, Egypt's strongest political movement, has been frustrated that the military has prevented their domination of parliament from translating into real political power. The group was angered when the military-appointed election commission over the past week disqualified its initial candidate for president, along with nine other hopefuls.
In response, the Brotherhood is calling for a "second revolution."
Liberals and the youth groups who led the revolt against Mubarak, however, are also skeptical, accusing the Brotherhood of abandoning the revolution to pursue their own quest to rule. The Brotherhood largely stayed out of antimilitary protests and accepted the generals' running of the transition, betting that the process would pave their way to political power.
Nada al-Marsafi, a 21-year-old student protesting Friday in Tahrir, questioned the Islamists' intentions.
"The Brotherhood is using this (rally) as a chance for self-promotion to campaign for their candidate," she said.
Many in the secular camp demand the Brotherhood "apologize" for its actions over the past year and show it is not intent on monopolizing power.
"First they must make an apology for the revolution whose image they ruined," says Amr Hamzawy, a liberal lawmaker.
Khaled al-Balshi, editor of the leftist el-Badeel news site, said he feared that Islamists are once again using the protests as a card to pressure the military council and would go back to striking deals with it again later.
"I am afraid that right now there is something being cooked," he told Al-Jazeera television.
Another major force in the square were the ultraconservative Salafis, an Islamic movement that is more hard-line than the Brotherhood. Many of them are furious over the disqualification of their favored presidential candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail, who was barred from the race because his mother held American citizenship. Election rules bar a candidate's close family from having dual citizenship. Many of his supporters accuse the military and election of commission of forging documents to force out the popular Abu Ismail.
His supporters marched through the square Friday carrying a long banner with Abu Ismail's image, demanding that he be reinstated.
The presidential elections are scheduled for May 23-24. A new president will be announced on June. 21. The military council has pledged to transfer power to the elected civilian administration by early July.
Members of military council have said more than once over the past weeks that they don't intend to postpone elections and are not in favor of any candidate.
But the council raised worries that they intend to push back the election and hold power longer when the generals said in a closed-door meeting with political parties that they believe the writing of Egypt's new constitution should be finished before a president is seated. The constitution-writing process is already in turmoil, and few believe it could be completed in that time frame.
"Today we came to demand that presidential elections take place on time, without delay even for a single day," Muslim cleric Muzhar Shahine told protesters in a Friday sermon in Tahrir. "Let's forget the mistakes of each other ... for the sake of our nation's interest."
Islamists captured nearly 70 percent of the seats in parliament in elections held late last year, with the Brotherhood alone capturing nearly half the legislature. Parliament then demanded the removal of the military-backed government headed by Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri, which the Brotherhood hoped to replace with a government it would dominate. The military refused, however, and parliament has been unable to force the Cabinet's ouster.
In retaliation, the Brotherhood reversed a previous promise not to field a presidential candidate from its own ranks and nominated its chief strategist, Khairat el-Shater. However, Egypt's election commission on Wednesday disqualified el-Shater from presidential elections on legal grounds related to his past conviction and imprisonment.
At the same time, parliament created an Islamist-dominated assembly to write the constitution, angering secular forces and fueling the perception that the Brotherhood is trying to go it alone in determining the country's future.
However, a court disbanded the 100-member panel, in a blow to the Brotherhood on that front as well.
The Brotherhood has a back-up candidate to run in the presidential election, its political party head Mohammed Morsi.
After what they see as the Brotherhood's attempts to control every facet of Egypt's future ruling system, some in the "revolution" camp have doubts over their sincerity in the new protests.
Mustafa el-Naggar, co-founder of the El-Adl Party, created after Mubarak's fall, said he was boycotting Friday's rally.
"I will not enter Tahrir square today because it doesn't represent me," he said, referring to the Islamists' agenda.