Egyptians back in the streets demanding government step down

CAIRO — Tens of thousands of Egyptians crowded into Tahrir Square on Friday, demanding the resignation of the caretaker government in a protest that showed both deepening anger at what many here consider the slow pace of reform and the delicate divisions that plague the country's nascent political system.

Many vowed to remain in the square until either their demands for quicker change were met or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which now runs the country, had stepped down.

"We did it before, and the supreme council should understand that we will do it over and over again," said Ahmed Maher, who heads the April 6 Movement, one of Egypt's most influential youth and community movements.

The protest's numbers were swollen by busloads of bearded men and veiled women, followers of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi strain of fundamentalist Islam whose leaders endorsed the rally only at the last minute after initially denouncing it. But the arrival of the Islamists served only to anger others in the crowd, a sign of the deep split between the religious and the secular in this impoverished country.

Salafi men carried flags and banners with Islamic slogans and chanted "Islamic, Islamic," referring to their demand of an Islamic state. Secular protesters made no effort to hide their disdain.

"They were calling on people to boycott this Friday and people defied them," said Sally Toma, a member of the Egyptian Socialist Party. "The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis came only to get into the photo. They now know they don't represent the masses."

Many of the protesters had been in the square since Thursday night, when the vast concrete expanse became an open-air camp of scores of tents, some built to host field hospitals, in case of violence, and others a pavilions for dozens of political parties and youth movements that used them to host their supporters or proselytize future adherents.

Huge crowds turned out as well in the cities of Alexandria and Suez. In the largest protest ever staged in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh, hundreds of members of the Revolution Youth Coalition rallied in front of the hospital where the ailing former President Hosni Mubarak is detained.

The supreme council announced on Wednesday that there would be no police or military forces at Friday's rallies. That left the responsibility for security to the protesters themselves. Civilians wearing T-shirts emblazoned with "Square Security" set up checkpoints and frisked and checked the IDs of anyone entering the square.

A wide variety of weapons, ranging from small knives to machetes, were confiscated.

"We don't want the police here, they never protected us anyway," said Gigi Ibrahim, a representative for the Egyptian Labor Party. "As for the military council, we've lost confidence in them."

Thousands of protesters showed their agreement, chanting, "The people demand the fall of the marshal," a reference to the chairman of the supreme council and Egypt's defense minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

Khalid Hetta, 48, a business owner, said Tantawi was to blame for Egypt's slow reform and the fact that there still have been no trials of Mubarak-era officials in the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators during the 18 days of protests that preceded Mubarak's resignation.

"He is Mubarak's intimate friend and partner in corruption and suppression," Hetta said. "The face is different but the policy is the same."

Hetta pledged to remain in the square until either "they fulfill the reform demands or the revolution topples them as it toppled their predecessors."

Sheikh Mazhar Shahin, who's also known as the revolution sheikh because of his role in the protests of January and February, exhorted the crowd to remain in the square until their demands were met.

"The revolution called for the system to change," he said. "We did not sacrifice lives to change faces."

Anger has been building for weeks at the supreme council, both over its failure to prosecute former Mubarak officials for the deaths of protesters and its continued use of military courts to try civilians. Last week, the scheduled sentencing of police officers charged in the death of Khalid Said, a blogger whose beating death sparked the anti-Mubarak protests, was postponed. Last month, the military admitted to human rights advocates that more than 7,000 civilians had been tried in military courts since Mubarak fell.

But Friday's protest showed that public ire at the government has moved beyond the supreme council. Protesters also called on Egypt's Prime Minister Essam Sharaf to resign, and former judges taking part in the protest raised signs saying, "The people demand the cleansing of the judiciary system."

"The only way to trust the judiciary system is to broadcast trials on TV," said Mahmoud el Khodeiry, the former head of Egypt's appeals court.

Khodeiry also raised what has become an increasingly common refrain against the government, its continued relations with Israel.

"The former president was a friend of Israel, and I wonder why the new government continues exporting gas to them," he said.

The Friday protest was the result of weeks organizing efforts, said Maher, the head of the April 6 Movement.

He said youth movements and political parties had discussed for three weeks how to organize the protest.

"We all agreed to come down and call for real reform," he said. "If we had seen even the tiniest bit of change, we would have never came out in protest."

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


Unhappy workers threaten to shut down Egypt's Suez Canal

Egypt's gas pipeline a target for anger at Israel, Mubarak

Egypt rejection of U.S. aid a sign of future rifts?

U.S. fares poorly in first modern polling of Egyptian views

New Egypt? 7,000 civilians jailed since Mubarak fell

Follow McClatchy on Twitter.

Related stories from The Olympian