CAIRO -- Tens of thousands of demonstrators rallied in Tahrir Square on Friday under competing banners but unified against Egypt's military rulers and the dispiriting transition to democracy following last year's revolution that overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak.
With presidential elections only one month away, Egyptians turned out in one of the largest protests in months, filling the square with chants of conflicting ambitions. Liberals marched for a ban to prevent Mubarak-era officials from running for president and for a pluralistic constitution. Islamists voiced anger that their two leading presidential candidates -- Khairat Shater and Hazem Salah abu Ismail -- were expelled from the race this week by the country's election commission.
The crowd revealed the fractiousness and frustration that has defined the nation under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The army was the main target of resentment for liberals and Islamists alike, but the protest was a stark reminder of disparate political and religious visions for a new Egypt, most notably held by Islamists, who control parliament and want to expand their influence.
"Disqualifying Abu Ismail on false grounds, in addition to the election committee's [poor] running of things, confirms that there is a conspiracy by SCAF to direct Egyptians toward electing a remnant of Mubarak's rule," said Ahmed Abdel Razek, a lawyer. "I don't trust this committee any longer."
He and many other Islamists accused the election committee of working to bring a president that would serve the SCAF's agenda even after the army hands power to a civilian government in June. The committee expelled Abu Ismail because his late mother held a U.S passport; Shater was barred due to his convictions on politically motivated charges brought by the Mubarak government.
The rally was called by liberal movements two weeks ago. But after Tuesday's announcement on Shater and Ismail, the Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-conservative Salafis summoned tens of thousands of their followers into the streets after Friday prayers. It was reminiscent of the marches in the capital during the 18-day period that concluded with the overthrow of Mubarak.
Despite differences in signs, speeches and placards, the demonstration marked the first time in months that liberal groups, including the April 6th Youth movement, and Islamist organizations shared the square that helped inspire so-called Arab Spring rebellions across the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood, intent on widening its political reach, had largely ignored protests to concentrate on last year's campaigning for parliamentary elections.
Mahmoud Gadou, a merchant and Muslim Brotherhood member, said all political and activist movements should reunite to counter the military's grip on power and salvage the revolution: "The strength of the revolution was in all sects coming together," he said. "Now is the time for this to happen again to ensure that the revolution continues until a fair election is carried out."
But many leftists and secularists -- their numbers in Tahrir much smaller than those of Islamists --remained skeptical.
"Islamists have abandoned the revolution and left the square a long time ago in order to seek political gains, and now they're only coming back to further abuse the revolution and achieve more political benefits," said Sayed Abdel Zaher, a member of the Egyptian Communist Party. "It is very hard to retain the confidence between us and them."
Such suspicions are certain to play into next month's elections. The leading contenders appear to be Former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, Muslim Brotherhood backup candidate Mohamed Morsi and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a progressive Islamist.
-- Amro Hassan and Jeffrey Fleishman
Photo: Protesters in Tahrir Square on Friday. Credit: Khaled Desouki /AFP