CAIRO - Tens of thousands of Islamists jammed Tahrir Square yesterday in the most significant challenge yet to the authority of Egypt’s military council that seized power nine months ago with the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
The demonstration ended an uneasy truce between Egypt’s Islamists and its military, which had prevailed since Mubarak’s exit. The truce reached a breaking point after the military council spelled out for the first time its intention to claim a decisive role in Egyptian politics far into the future, even after parliamentary elections scheduled to begin later this month or a final handover of power to constitutional authorities some time in 2013 or beyond.
It begins a face-off between Egypt’s two most powerful institutions, its army and the once-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. It leaves Egyptian liberals anxious and divided on the sidelines.
“Each side is drawing lines in the sand over its future role in the political process,’’ said Emad Shahin, an Egyptian scholar at Notre Dame who was in Tahrir Square yesterday.
“The military forces would like to secure an exit from the transitional period with some kind of assurances of its future role in the political scene,’’ he said. “And the Islamists think that this could put a check on their power even if they win in clean and fair elections.’’
Egyptian liberals, torn between their fears of Islamist power on the one hand and of military rule on the other, mostly stayed home. The April 6 Movement, a pivotal force in the uprising, was one of the few liberal groups to make a conspicuous presence, calling it “the Friday of One Demand’’ - meaning a handover of power to the lower house of Parliament after it is elected by April. “Of course there are fears of Islamists taking power,’’ said Dina Allithy, 23, a recent college graduate and member of the group. “But today we are trying to ignore all of that.’’
The Brotherhood, whose organization and discipline were honed by decades of operation under police scrutiny, dispatched hundreds of members to start camping out Thursday night in Tahrir Square, the symbolic epicenter of the popular movement that that ousted Mubarak.
By yesterday morning, buses arrived carrying thousands of Islamists from outside Cairo. And by 8 p.m. thousands of demonstrators appeared to be setting up camp for the night, although some were seen leaving.
The ruling military council and its caretaker government, which staged a public meeting with Islamist leaders Thursday night in an attempt to avert the protest, had issued no response yesterday.
The spark for the protest was a recent set of declarations issued by the military-led government as ground rules for the drafting of a new constitution. Many of its provisions sought to enshrine protections of individual liberties and minority rights that liberals have sought.
But another provision granted the military a long-term political role as guardian of “constitutional legitimacy,’’ which many Islamists suspect is a reference to the secular character of the state and could give the military an excuse to intervene at will. The protesters also criticized provisions that would protect the military from civilian scrutiny of its budget and give the military veto power over certain foreign policy decisions.
The Muslim Brotherhood, through its Freedom and Justice Party, may emerge as the largest bloc in the election. “Those who fear Islamist movements in Egypt, I tell them don’t be scared of Islam in Egypt,’’ Imam Shahin said. “Egypt is Islamic, like it or not.’’
He said, “We want a civic democratic state with an Islamic vision that allows people to practice their rights and democracy.’’
Liberals who decided to stay away have said in recent days that they believed the debate over the constitutional declaration only served to further deepen divisions in the electorate over the role of Islam in Egyptian public life and as a result benefited the well-organized Islamists.