Minor clashes broke out on side streets off Cairo's downtown Tahrir Square on Friday after a mass protest organized by Egypt's ultra-conservative Salafis.
The scuffles between liberals and Salafis began as protesters trickled away from the iconic square after the 'Shariah Friday' Protest.The Salafis had returned to the square for the second Friday in a row to demand implementation of Islamic Shariah Law. Unlike last Friday's protest, when turnout was low, an estimated 10,000 protesters participated in this weekend's rally.
"The people want the implementation of God's law," the protesters chanted.
The demonstrators also demanded the removal of the Grand Sheikh of el Azhar Ahmed El Tayeb. Differences over Article 2 of the draft Constitution have caused friction between Al Azhar and the Salafis in recent weeks.
Al Azhar insists on retaining the current wording of Article 2 of the 1971 Constitution, which states that "Shariah principles are the basis of all legislation." The Salafis meanwhile want to replace “Shariah principles” with “Islamic jurisprudence or Shariah Law.” This would mean the imposition of controversial punitive measures in Shariah (as is the case in Saudi Arabia and Iran).
Moderates argue that these measures, which include the stoning of women who commit adultery and cutting off a thief's hand, are "overly harsh" and "not befitting civilized, modern-day society." Among the critics of the punitive measures are leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party who say they are "against Egypt becoming a theocracy" and claim to want a democratic, civil state.
Al Azhar has also rejected a proposal by Salafi members of the Constituent Assembly (a 100 member panel engaged in drafting the country's new constitution) that the institution's Grand Sheikh be elected (with a two-term limit) and subject to a set retirement age (75).
Protesters on Friday also called for the dismissal of the Mubarak-appointed Prosecutor General Mahmoud Abdel Meguid who, in recent weeks, had resisted President Morsi’s attempts to remove him. Morsi had offered him a post as Egypt's Ambassador to the Vatican.
Abdel Meguid faces the wrath of millions of Egyptians after a court ruling acquitting Mubarak loyalists in the "Battle of the Camels" case, when men on horseback and riding camels brutally attacked protesters in Tahrir Square on February 2, 2011 causing chaos and injuring scores of protesters. The incident was a turning point in the mass uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, strengthening the protesters' resolve to remove the former regime.
Muslim Brotherhood supporters meanwhile stayed away from Friday's protest, after leaders of the moderate (yet conservative) movement urged its members not to join the rally. Islamist President Morsi urged the protesters "not to focus on petty and divisive issues, and to work instead to rebuild the country."
Egypt has been wracked by months of political turmoil and a flagging economy. Friday's protest further accentuated the polarization of the country along ideological lines. Liberals have increasingly voiced concern that Egypt was "moving in the wrong direction" with many expressing skepticism about the "real stance" of the Muslim Brotherhood on Shariah Law.
Social media networks have been awash with cynical criticism of the movement that shot to power post-revolution. "The Muslim Brotherhood are hiding their Islamic agenda", businessman Osama El Saeed wrote on Facebook. "The Muslim Brotherhood cannot be trusted, they say one thing and do the exact opposite," wrote Yasmin Amin, who has an MA in Islamic Studies from the American University in Cairo, on her Facebook wall.
Ideological differences over the constitution that will go on to shape Egypt's identity for years to come have widened the rift between radical Islamists on the one hand and liberals and Christians on the other.
Tensions have also escalated in the wake of a wave of Islamist militant attacks on security forces in the Sinai Peninsula in recent months. This stand-off was fuelled by rumors that Qatar and Iran-funded militants aim to establish an Islamic emirate in the border desert region. With no breakthrough as yet on the horizon, many are wondering where this tug of war will lead.
Shahira Amin is an Egyptian journalist, the former deputy head of Egyptian state-owned Nile TV and one of its senior anchors.