Islamists, protesters scuffle at at Egypt rally

January 27, 2012 - 3:55 PM
Mideast Egypt

Egyptian protesters sit in front of graffiti showing protesters chat slogans and the on the right side the face of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), with arabic writing, center, that reads "if you see the fangs of the lion bared, then don't think the lion is smiling," at a rally to mark the first anniversary of the "Friday of Rage," in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Jan. 27, 2012. Some 10,000 Egyptian protesters converged on Cairo's downtown Tahrir Square to mark the first anniversary of "Friday of Rage," a key day in the popular uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

CAIRO (AP) — Muslim Brotherhood supporters and secular protesters hurled bottles and rocks at each other and got into fistfights in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday as their political differences boiled over at a rally by tens of thousands marking an anniversary in the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

The scuffles, in which there were no reports of injury, were the first time the two sides have come to blows over resentments that have been rising between them since they worked together during the 18 days of protests against Mubarak a year ago.

Now they are locked in a competition to shape the transition. The differences do not focus on the Brotherhood's religious agenda — though it worries many in the other camp. Instead, the divisions are over the military, which have ruled since Mubarak's fall, and ultimately whether dramatic change will be brought to Egypt's long autocratic system.

The "revolutionaries," the leftist and secular activists who launched the anti-Mubarak revolt, now demand the ruling generals quit power immediately and have vowed protests to force them out. The Brotherhood, meanwhile, has vaulted to political domination by winning the largest bloc in the new parliament and has been willing to let the military follow its own timetable for stepping down.

The revolutionaries suspect the Brotherhood will strike a deal with the ruling generals — giving them a future say in politics to ensure the Brotherhood's hold on authority and influence on the writing of a new constitution, effective shelving serious reform. They also bristle over what they see as the Brotherhood's attempts to monopolize the political scene.

Nevertheless, the two sides have been uneasily trying to share Tahrir Square this week since a giant rally Wednesday marking the Jan. 25 start of the anti-Mubarak protests. But on a new rally Friday, tempers broke.

"Out, out, out!" revolutionaries chanted at the Brotherhood's main stage in the square, holding their shoes in the air in a sign of contempt at a line of Brothers forming a human chain in front of the podium.

"Dogs of the military council," others chanted at the Brothers.

The political differences have translated into a dispute over the very meaning of the anniversary. The Brotherhood has presented this week as a celebration of the revolution's successes — particularly their own parliament victory. The secular groups say there is nothing to celebrate when so many demands of the revolution are left unachieved and killings of protesters have gone unpunished.

The fights erupted over the Brotherhood's giant stage in the square, bristling with loudspeakers. Some protesters complain the Brotherhood sought to drown out other protesters by blaring religious anthems, Quranic recitations and music.

Others were angered a celebratory banner on the stage proclaiming, "Holiday of the Revolution." Another note of triumphalism that irritated many was a song played repeatedly celebrating the military's victories in the 1973 war with Israel and proclaiming "may the victory be bigger" in the revolution.

Arguments about the stage turned into pushing and shoving then fistfights and exchanges of hurled bottles and rocks.

The scuffles reflect both the frustrations and the growing confidence of the revolutionary groups. The military has been seeking to isolate them from a public tiring of turmoil, and the Brotherhood's election victories left them with little say in parliament. But on Wednesday and Friday, they succeeded in bringing out numbers of protesters that rivaled or even surpassed the Islamists' presence, raising their hopes that they can push the Brotherhood to a firmer line on the military.

The leftists and secular groups accuse the military of being as dictatorial as Mubarak and of intending to preserve their power even after a handover to civilians. There is widespread resentment that little has been done to dismantle Mubarak's regime and prosecute security officers for the deaths of hundreds of protesters during the past year in crackdowns by both Mubarak and the military.The Brotherhood insists it wants the military to leave power, but it is willing to let it stay until late June when the generals have promised to hand over rule to a civilian president.

In Tahrir, Ahmed Kamal, a 39 year old engineer who voted for the Brotherhood in recent parliament elections but is not a member, said he hopes the movement takes a stronger tone. "Their rhetoric has been too soft" on the military, he said. "In the end, the military council won't hand over power unless the Square and the parliament are on the same wavelength."

The day's protests, which included mass rallies in other Egyptian cities, commemorated the first anniversary of the "Friday of Rage," one of the bloodiest days of the 18-day protests that led to Mubarak's Feb. 11 ouster.

In last year's "Friday of Rage," Mubarak's security forces fired on protesters marching toward Tahrir from around the capital, killing and wounding hundreds. Protesters battled back for hours until the police collapsed and withdrew from the streets.

"This is a day of mourning, not celebration," said Abdel-Hady el-Ninny, the father of a slain protester, Alaa Abdel-Hady. He and his family carried large posters of his son around Tahrir.

In Friday's rally, large marches organized by the leftist and secular groups streamed from mosques around Cairo to join the tens of thousands in Tahrir. "We want civilian, not military," they chanted in the marches, and some young men shaved the words "down with military rule" in their hair cuts. One protester, carried on his comrades' shoulders, portrayed a slain protester.

Several thousand also protested in front of the state television building, near Tahrir — a focus of anger because state media have served as a mouthpiece for the military and its denunciations of protesters, just as it did under Mubarak.

A march to the Defense Ministry was confronted by dozens of supporters of the military. The two sides chanted slogans outside the building, guarded by barbed wire and armored vehicles, until a series of loud booms went off. The protesters scattered, and several said they saw military supporters throw homemade bombs and that one protester was injured.

"We delivered a message to the military that we are not scared," Milad Daniel, whose brother Mina was killed in a military crackdown on protesters in October, said after the ministry protest. "They have tanks and armored vehicles but we have God."

Amid the crowds in Tahrir, a Muslim cleric delivered a boisterous Friday sermon, proclaiming protesters must determine the country's course.

"Our right is to dictate the decisions of the revolution," said the cleric, Muzhar Shahine, speaking from the "revolutionaries" stage, as the crowd cried, "God is great."

He gave a litany of the unrealized changes sought by the revolution.

State media must be purged, a constitution must be written that is "shared by all political parties and that gives rights for all of Egypt's children," and Christians must be given the same rights as Muslims, he said.

"A year later, has State Security really been dissolved," he said, referring to Mubarak's feared internal security force that was the backbone of his police state. "Has our land been freed?"