The massive rival protests come just three days before the country's planned first elections since Hosni Mubarak was forced from power in February.
Rival protests reveal a divided Egypt
CAIRO // Egypt was a country divided yesterday, with more than 100,000 people demonstrating in Tahrir Square for the military to cede power and another smaller group nearby chanting for the military to guide the country through its democratic transition.
The massive protests came just three days before the country's planned first elections since Hosni Mubarak was forced from power in February.
The elections for the lower house of parliament will begin the first of three phases on Monday.
The Tahrir protests were the product of suspicions that the military rulers, headed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), would use their control of the interim government to preserve their power and outrage at the deaths of more than 41 protesters in clashes with the central security forces since November 19. By yesterday, an uneasy truce between protesters and police was kept throughout the day as chants of "leave means go" and "go, Scaf, go" rung out in the streets.
A rival protest group in the Abbasiya area nearby rose up in opposition to the Tahrir protesters, with thousands of people demanding that the occupation of the square come to an end and elections be allowed to continue without obstruction. Organisers said they were speaking on behalf of Egypt's "silent majority" that supports the military and wants stability.
Passersby, however, said they were torn by the two groups. Osama Hosni, 27, an engineer from Cairo, said he walked from one group to the other to "compare the two sides."
"They want stability because the economy is hurting," he said of the Abbasiya group. "But here [in Tahrir], they want freedom… The majority of Egyptians are with the revolution, but they should give Scaf more time."
The military made concessions last week, including announcing that presidential elections would begin in June 2012 and accepting the resignation of the cabinet. Late Thursday, Kamal El Ganzouri, a former prime minister under Mr Mubarak, was appointed as the new prime minister.
In his first remarks on a televised news conference, he called on Egyptians to put aside their differences and work towards rebuilding the country, and insisted he had been given power by the generals to conduct the government.
"The powers given to me exceed any similar mandates," he said. "I will take full authority so I'm able to serve my country."
But many protesters have said that the moves were not enough and have called on Scaf itself to relinquish power completely and for elections to be delayed for at least two weeks. People in Tahrir Square yesterday were divided over whether elections should move forward as planned.
Joe Rizk, a political activist who is part of a group called The New Republic that is advocating for the government to be run by a presidential council made up of members of different political groups, said that the elections had "lost credibility before they even start".
"It's designed to keep the old guard in place," he said of the elections, describing how the electoral law had been conceived to give new parties the least time to get organised and benefit parties and movements that existed during Mr Mubarak's time. "Before the run-up to these events, we had given up hope for the time being. [The events in Tahrir] have really raised our ambitions. This is the second wave of the revolution."
Groups from across Egypt were setting up new tents in Tahrir Square yesterday and planning to stay until the military gives up power.
However, it was unclear how the protests in Tahrir Square would affect the political process already underway, other than to lower voter turnout. Some liberal groups, such as the Egyptian Liberal Democrats, have said they would boycott the elections, but it was too late for them to remove their names from ballot sheets.
The powerful Freedom and Justice Party, the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood, has rejected the protests in Tahrir Square. It held its own protest in front of Al Azhar University, the centre of Sunni Islam in the Arab World, to denounce the Israeli control of Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
Adel Maged, a judge and vice-president of the Court of Cassation, said in an interview that Egypt's current disarray could be traced to a lack of respect for "rule of law".
"After nine months, the people didn't see that the rule of law has prevailed in Egypt," he said, defining rule of law as a fair, equitable legal system that allowed for participation of citizens in decision-making. "They came back to the streets, especially after they had seen police brutality against the protesters … which constitutes a serious violation of their human rights."
If rule of law had been established by the country's judiciary and military government, "the police officers would never do what they have done," Judge Maged said. "And the protesters would never have attacked the authorities."
With additional reporting by Erin Cunningham