Tens of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday to show Islamists and others were united in wanting change, though divisions remain on how hard to press the military rulers about the pace and depth of reforms.
Muslim chants such as “There is no God but God” and “Islamiya, Islamiya” dominated. Some waved banners saying “Islamic Egypt.” A senior Muslim Brotherhood official described the rally as a “Friday of unity of all political forces,” according to Reuters.
Some protesters chanted “People and army, hand in hand.”
The rally was officially to start after the Muslim noon prayer but thousands had already made their way to the square overnight.
The powerful Muslim Brotherhood, in coordination with other fundamentalist Muslim groups, had called for the demonstration, sparking fears of tensions with secular groups already camped out in Tahrir Square since July 8.
But after two days of meetings, secular and Islamist groups agreed to put their differences aside and focus on the common goals in order to save the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February, organizers said, according to AFP.
On the podiums set up around the square, speakers called for unity and partnership, but inside crowds who had gathered in sweltering heat called for Egypt to “implement God’s law.”
“We are glad political forces are showing a united front at this critical juncture in the revolution,” Mohammed Adel, spokesman for April 6 said ahead of the rally, Reuters reported.
Since July 8, mainly secular protesters have been camped out in Tahrir Square—the epicenter of protests that toppled Mr. Mubarak—to denounce the ruling military council over the slow pace of reform.
Among the key demands are the end to military trials of civilians, the prosecution of former regime members found guilty of abuse, and the redistribution of wealth.
The military has also come under fire for alleged rights abuses and for using Mubarak-era tactics to stifle dissent.
But Islamist groups had for the most part stayed away from the sit-in.
Protesters marched on the Defense Ministry and other military sites in Cairo and other cities last weekend. In the capital, demonstrators clashed with stone-throwing youths while soldiers forming a cordon did little to intervene.
The army rulers, in an unusually blunt statement, accused April 6 of trying to divide the people and the army, which has drawn fire for continuing to use military trials for civilians and failing to move more swiftly to try Mubarak and his allies.
April 6 has dismissed the army criticism and said it would not ease off the pressure.
“The latest attempts to marginalize us have not worked because the opposition knows if one group gets demonized then that eventually will harm all other groups keen on protecting the gains of the revolution,” Mr. Adel of the April 6 told Reuters.
Last week, Islamist groups held their own demonstration and accused the Tahrir protesters of going against what they say is the country’s “Islamic identity.”
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—which took power when Mubarak stepped down—has recently accused Tahrir protesters of “sowing instability” and “driving a wedge between the army and the people,” singling out the secular April 6 movement as the main culprit.
Last week, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of SCAF and Mubarak’s long-time defense minister, pledged in a television address to work for a free system through fair elections and a constitution.
Parliamentary elections have been announced for autumn, to be followed by the drafting of a new constitution and then a presidential election.
Nationwide debates had raged for weeks over whether to hold elections first or draft the charter first.
Secular groups feared that an early election would benefit the well-entrenched Muslim Brotherhood, which would then have too much influence in drawing up the new constitution.
One of the persistent protester demands has been for a swifter trial of Mr. Mubarak, who was ousted on February 11 after an 18-day uprising. His trial is now set for August 3 but protesters accuse the army of dragging its feet and being reluctant to hold their former commander-in-chief to account.
Mr. Mubarak has been in a hospital in the Red Sea resort of Sharm Al Sheikh since April when he was first questioned, and is now detained there. But he has not been transferred to a prison like his two sons and other officials due to illness.
A source close to Mubarak said his lawyer would tell the court in Cairo next week that he was too sick to attend the opening session.
Many Egyptians see Mubarak’s illness as a ploy to avoid publicly humiliating the former president.
Mubarak’s lawyer and doctors have repeatedly reported that the 83-year-old ousted leader’s health is failing, though Egypt’s health ministry said he is fit enough to stand trial, according to The Associated Press.
(Abeer Tayel, a senior journalist at Al Arabiya English, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)