CAIRO -- Thousands of Islamists surged into Tahrir Square on Friday to denounce the presidential campaigns of three officials who served under toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, including Omar Suleiman, onetime vice president and feared intelligence chief.
The protesters, mostly followers of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafi movement, derided Suleiman, former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa and deposed Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik. Moussa and Shafik had announced their campaigns months ago, but it was Suleiman's entry into the race last week that outraged Islamists as well as liberals and activists.
"You belong in prison, Suleiman, your election is over our dead bodies," protesters chanted in the biggest demonstration in Tahrir in months.
The rally at once showed the organizational skill of Islamists to draw crowds into the streets and the fear of many Egyptians that remnants of Mubarak's regime are plotting to retake the nation after last year's revolution.
"Suleiman was the closest and the most loyal to Mubarak," said Mohamed Ragab, a doctor, standing in the square amid banners, flags and loudspeakers echoing with speeches. "We revolted against him as much as we did against Mubarak and if we didn’t accept him as a vice president, I can't see any sense in accepting him as a president or even a candidate."
The protest also appeared to mark a turning point in the deteriorating relations between Islamists, who control parliament, and the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). The two sides have been cooperating for months but they have grown increasingly suspicious of each other as the military seeks to preserve its authority and financial interests before turning power over to a civilian government in June.
"Down, down with rule of the army," thousands chanted. Protesters said the ruling council is backing Suleiman, a retired army officer, in an effort to ensure the new president will be compliant with the generals. Suleiman and the military have denied such claims, but army officers are often visible around Suleiman's entourages.
"Suleiman is the top of the mountain on which SCAF is showing its will to remain in power through restoring Mubarak's regime," said Kamal Habib, member of the Islamic Peace and Development Party.
Many protesters said the army, which controls state media, is portraying Islamists and liberals as dangers to the country's stability. Suleiman has presented himself as a patriotic stalwart against what he claims is a plan by Islamists to control the government and turn Egypt into an Islamic state.
In comments published by state newspaper Al Ahram on Friday, Suleiman accused the Muslim Brotherhood of "hijacking the revolution" by trying to amass political power. After saying it wouldn't contest the presidential election, the group reversed itself and decided to enter Khairat Shater, a former political prisoner, as its candidate. Suleiman also said the Brotherhood tried to assassinate him last year.
Thousands marched from mosques to the square to protest a day after parliament passed a law barring top members of Mubarak's regime from running for president. But the legislation must be ratified by the military, which is unlikely.
"There were many regulations passed by parliament recently that SCAF blocked, and this law will be another episode of the clash between the army and MPs," Ragab said.
LIberal political parties and coalitions, which also oppose Suleiman's campaign, decided to stay away from Tahrir Square, another indication of the mistrust between Islamists and liberals as the country unsteadily veers toward the presidential election in May. Liberals have accused Islamists of abandoning the ideals of the revolution to further their own political ambitions.
Liberal forces called for a march of their own April 20.
-- Amro Hassan and Jeffrey Fleishman
Photo: Thousands of Islamist protesters gather in Tahrir Square on Friday. Credit: Amr Nabil / Associated Press