By Ben Hubbard, The Associated Press — Originally published in the Globe and Mail
Calls for an Islamic state have taken over Cairo’s Tahrir Square as the largest demonstration since February has been mobilized by the country’s Islamist organizations. Ultraconservative Muslims turned out in force Friday as hundreds of thousands filled Cairo’s central Tahrir Square in a rally marked by a growing rift in the protest movement.
South of the capital, gunmen fired on a car carrying Christians, killing two. While the motive was unknown, similar events have sparked religious violence in the past.
In the largest crowd to fill the square since the popular uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February, Salafis chanted for the implementation of strict Islamic law — spurring accusations that they violated an agreement to keep the rally free from divisive issues.
They have come in a show of force to demand that the country’s caretaker authority, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, cease its plans to present a set of principles that will form a framework for a new constitution.
Islamist group’s such as the Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt’s best organized political force – and the former terrorist organization Gamaa Islamiya along with disparate Salafist bodies argue that only God’s word is greater than a constitution and that only a parliament chosen by free election can set the terms for a constitution. These groups stayed away from recent demonstrations that sought to keep up pressure on the military council that took power after former president Hosni Mubarak’s fall, leading to smaller crowds.
The groups believe that they will poll enough support to dominate such a parliament and thereby set the terms. They fear that a kind of bill of rights could close off the possibility of a state run by Islamic laws.
The secular youths who once dominated this central Cairo square are in a distinct minority these days, and especially on Friday, dominated as it is by Islamists.
Liberal parties endorse the measure in an effort to limit what they fear will be outsized Islamist influence on the new document should religious groups win a large share of the parliament. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has accepted the idea.
Leaders of the original secular groups such as the April 6 Movement have agreed with Islamist leaders that neither side will confront the other today.
In the past 24 hours, the secularists won agreement from the Islamists that the day would be known as the Day of Unity, rather than the Day of Sharia as called for by the Islamists.
No one, however, appears to have told the hundreds of thousands of Islamist supporters packed together in Tahrir Square in the midday sun.
Crowds of ultraconservative Salafis, however, gave a common protests chant an Islamic twist — sparking criticisms from others who said the chants violated an agreement to avoid divisive issues.
Instead of “Peaceful, peaceful,” which demonstrators have chanted during confrontations with security forces, they repeated “Islamic, Islamic.” And instead of “The people want to topple the regime” — a chant made famous in Tunisia and adopted across the region — they yelled, “The people want to implement Sharia,” or Islamic law.
Salafis are ultraconservatives, close to Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and more radical than the Brotherhood. They seek to emulate the austerity of Islam’s early days and oppose a wide range of practices like intermingling of the sexes that they view as “un-Islamic.” Many also reject all forms of Western cultural influence.
Elsewhere in Egypt, some of the Islamic protests turned violent.
Gunmen fired on a car carrying five Christians in the province of Minya south of Cairo, killing two and injuring two, a military official said. It was the second killing in two weeks in the predominantly Christian village of Roman.
Christian residents gathered in front of the hospital where the bodies were taken as the word spread, although the official said the attackers had not been captured and the reason for the shooting was not known.
In the Sinai city of al-Arish, hard-line Salafis fired rocket-propelled grenades and other heavy weapons in the air during protests, injuring a small boy, according to an intelligence official.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to brief the media.
In the southern city of Assiut, deputy police chief Yosri el-Jammasi said Salafist protesters beat up a group of protesters from the Communist party trying to join their demonstration. At one point, some in the crowd yelled back at a speaker who criticized the idea of constitutional guidelines.
The rally comes a day after Egypt’s Justice Ministry said former president Hosni Mubarak, along with his two sons, his former security chief and seven others, will be tried at a Cairo convention centre.
Of the 11, Mr. Mubarak, his security chief — former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly — and six top police officers are charged with ordering the use of deadly force against protesters. If convicted, the eight could face the death penalty.
Mr. Mubarak, his sons Gamal and Alaa and businessman Hussein Salem also face corruption charges. Mr. Salem, a close friend of Mubarak’s, is at large.
The announcement had little apparent effect on Friday’s protest, mostly because most activists doubt Mr. Mubarak will actually stand trial Wednesday as planned.
Mr. Mubarak’s lawyer and doctors treating him in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh 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.