Islamist Show of Strength Shows Egypt's Liberals What They're Up Against

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Khalil Hamra / AP

A protester waves an Egyptian flag that reads "We love Egypt" during a demonstration after Friday prayers on July 29, 2011, in Cairo's Tahrir Square, where many have set up protest tent camps

Thousands of fresh faces poured into Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday, July 29, packing the hot concrete plaza all the way to its metal barriers, as speeches and chants echoed into nearby neighborhoods. The demonstration was more than three times the size of the crowds in recent weeks, when youth activists had maintained a sit-in. But the event — ostensibly a rally for national unity — may have thrown a wrench into the plans and dampened the pride of the young liberals who have steadfastly clung to the square demanding fulfillment of their "revolutionary demands." That's because most of Friday's protesters weren't liberals.

"We came because we want Islamic law to be implemented," said Amgad Ali, a Cairo lawyer. "The Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafi [fundamentalist] parties invited us."

Tahrir was a frightening spectacle for Egypt's poorly organized youth and liberal groups. Bearded Islamists with baseball caps and sun umbrellas, accompanied by women in black abayas and face veils, held banners that said, "Egypt's identity is Islamic," and led the crowds in chants of "There is no God but God, and secularists are the enemies of God." Many had bused into Cairo from towns across the Nile Delta in order to hold the Koran high above their heads and chant for the implementation of Shari'a law. "Islamiya, Islamiya," the chants rang out. Some even chanted in favor of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — the authority targeted by youth activists during the sit-in, although it may also be the most powerful bulwark against the Islamization of Egypt sought by many of Friday's protesters.

Many of the young liberals were peeved; some were outraged. Dozens clustered throughout the day inside the tents they have occupied for weeks. More than a dozen non-Islamist parties were represented in the demonstration, but many nonetheless expressed a feeling of being outnumbered. "Welcome to the infidel section," shouted Rania Rifaat sarcastically to visitors. "I'm upset," she added, looking past the tents into the crowd. "We, the youth, did the revolution. We didn't say that it should be Islamic or whatever. And people felt good. They felt relaxed here. And then suddenly these Islamic liars came, and they want us to go back 300 years."

Many youth activists from movements, including the 6th of April Youth Movement and Kifaya, said they felt that a transparty agreement on the terms of Friday's demonstration had been betrayed. Ostensibly, the aim had been to rally behind seven demands, Rifaat said, including speedier prosecutions of officials of the Mubarak regime and higher wages. "But they are like the Jews — they always break their promises," she said of the Islamists. "Most of the revolutionary youth decided not to come today." Some groups used social media to call off their participation in the rally entirely.

On Twitter, liberal activists and journalists expressed similar indignation. Some complained of intolerance and aggressive attitudes toward women in the crowd. "Confused when did Taliban take over?" local journalist and activist Lina Wardani tweeted midmorning. "Today is just wrong all over," tweeted another young activist, Gigi Ibrahim, from the square.

Friday's protest raised the question of who owns Tahrir Square. For weeks, Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafis' Noor Party — both heavily represented on Friday — have mobilized, largely uncontested, around Islamist demands in towns and cities throughout the Nile Delta, Upper Egypt and even the Sinai Peninsula.

But Tahrir is sacred, some liberal activists argue. Having been the epicenter of a people's uprising that brought down a dictator, they insist, it must remain a place of national unity and consensus — despite some essentially claiming ownership of the space. On the fringes of the young liberals' tent camp, throughout the afternoon, liberals and Islamists engaged in heated, often screaming arguments over the day's purpose and mission.

But other liberals were less perturbed. "What's happening today is proof of the variation of ideas and movements here," said Ahmed Mubarak, a lawyer sitting in a different tent camp. Just past his tent, a group of men shouted for social justice. Others called for Islam to determine the constitution. "It's all evidence of democracy in this nation," he said.