CAIRO // Thousands of people rallied in Tahrir Square yesterday in the first mass gathering since five days of street battles between protesters and the military that left at least 17 dead and 900 injured.
Friday protests have been a mainstay for Egyptian political forces and activists since the mass uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak from the presidency in February. But yesterday, the mood was more subdued than during previous protests and the periphery of the square was full of arguments about how the country can get on track after veering off course.
Holding a handkerchief stained with blood and wearing the standard equipment of a front-line protester, including a green helmet, gas mask and track suit, Tarek Mabrouk, 36, gathered men around him to hear his stories of the military's brutality against civilian demonstrators.
"This blood is from last Monday, when they attacked us without provocation," he said. "It is from a young boy who I helped. They shot bullets. They ambushed us. But we won't stop. We are willing to come here and die for our cause."
As he marched away towards the concrete walls erected by the military on Qasr Al Aini and Sheikh Rehan streets, several of the old men who had been listening spoke up.
"If you provoke a cat, it will scratch you," said Suleyam Shawael, 56, a chemist wearing an old jumper, dismissing the young man's comments. "If you provoke a soldier, what do you think will happen?"
Ibrahim Ahmed, 63, a former worker in a military factory, joined in the debate and criticised Mr Mabrouk for being naive and detrimental to the revolution.
"The first revolution was excellent," he said. "But now we need to let the military finish the elections. We need to give the prime minister some time to do his job. This is the only solution. Chaos is not the answer."
The scene was illustrative of the unease of many Egyptians over the way groups have used Tahrir Square as a staging ground for what some say are unrealistic demands that result in deaths and little political changes.
Even as the men were speaking, though, it was clear that many of the people gathering in the centre of the square held more radical views about the "hijacking of the revolution", a common refrain among protesters.
Hundreds chanted, "We want the execution of the field marshal," referring to Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), and "Those who strip Egypt don't deserve to rule Egypt", referring to the images of a young woman being beaten and stripped by soldiers during the recent clashes. Many of the protesters yesterday were women, who said they came to demonstrate against the mistreatment of women by the military and police.
Earlier in the day, Hisham Ateya, the Islamic sheikh, led several thousand people in Friday prayers and spoke against Scaf, the country's interim rulers. "Leave Egypt to the Egyptians," he said. "Because they are able to rebuild it. Leave Egypt and go away."
The demonstrations yesterday also revealed a major first challenge for the Islamist political parties that have so far dominated the elections for the lower house of parliament.
The Freedom and Justice Party, created this year by the Muslim Brotherhood, chose not to participate in the "Friday of Regaining Honour and Defending the Revolution", as the protest was called. However, the ultraconservative Al Nour party did and thousands of people marched from Al Azhar mosque to the square in the late afternoon.
The choice not to attend by Freedom and Justice placed the group uncomfortably on the same side as Scaf and its supporters, who have called for an end to protests in Tahrir Square and to allow elections to continue unhindered.
So far, the party's leadership has condemned violence against civilians but not offered support for the cause of the Tahrir protesters. Some analysts view this as long-term planning, as the Islamists will likely use their new-found popular mandate to challenge the rule of the military next year.
The protests in Tahrir that began a week ago, however, have attempted to shift the focus away from parliamentary elections towards the creation of an interim civilian council to run the country and a faster timeline for presidential elections. This has been seen as a clear threat to the Islamists' political success.