Thousands of Islamists demonstrated in Egypt on Friday to demand that members of ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s regime be barred from standing in next month’s presidential election.
They gathered in an upbeat mood in the capital’s iconic Tahrir Square, symbol of the popular protest movement that led to last year’s downfall of Mubarak, amid chants of “No to leftovers from the old regime!”
“We don’t want Omar Suleiman!” they cried, referring to Mubaak’s former intelligence chief who was also briefly vice president, and who had sought to make a return to political life as a candidate in the May 23-24 election.
Friday’s demonstration came a day after the Islamist-dominated parliament approved a law that would ban former regime members from standing for public office.
The law, which still has to be approved by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), could see former officials such as Omar Suleiman disqualified.
The SCAF, which took over when Mubarak stood down on February 11, 2011, is widely seen as backing Suleiman’s candidacy for president.
“The people want to bring down the military!” protesters chanted on Friday after the SCAF on Thursday insisted it “does not back any of the presidential candidates.”
The Muslim Brotherhood - the biggest group in parliament - called the protest after Suleiman announced his candidacy last week. Both Islamists and secular reformists view it as a threat to democratic reform.
“Suleiman, do you think this is the old days?” chanted the protesters gathered in the square.
Muslim Brotherhood supporters waved the group’s green flag and the red, white and black Egyptian national colors. “The people demand the fall of the regime,” they chanted, a slogan used during the anti-Mubarak uprising. “Down, down with military rule,” they chanted. They also sang the national anthem.
Banners showed Suleiman and Mubarak alongside the Star of David, depicting both as agents of Israel because of policies that included Egypt’s role in enforcing a blockade on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, which borders the Arab state.
Egypt has had a peace treaty with Israel since 1979 but Mubarak’s Middle East policy, in large part managed by Suleiman, became the focus of ever sharper public criticism in his last years in power.
The council of army generals that has been running Egypt since Mubarak was deposed is due to hand power to an elected president on July 1. The vote, Egypt’s first real presidential election, is due to get under way on May 23 and will likely go to a run-off in June between the top two candidates.
Mubarak’s last premier Ahmed Shafiq, as well as former Arab League chief and long-time foreign minister Amr Mussa, are also candidates in next month’s poll for the top job and would be disqualified if the new law is ratified.
“No to Shafiq, no to Suleiman ̶ we will return to Tahrir!” the demonstrators warned.
Brotherhood’s denunciation of Suleiman
Khairat El-Shater, presidential candidate for the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, has denounced Suleiman’s attempt to make a political comeback, likening it to an attempt “to steal the revolution” and warned it could spark huge street protests.
Friday’s demonstration was called by the Brotherhood, now Egypt’s main political force, and more hardline Salafist groups in statements on their websites demanding the “protection of the revolution.”
It was staged in a relaxed atmosphere with many women and children present as demonstrators poured into the square from across the city.
Liberal and secular groups also do not wish to see the return of Mubarak-era figures, but they stayed away from Friday’s protest.
They have instead called a demonstration on April 20 to denounce what they see as Islamist monopolization of political life in the country since the revolt.
Suleiman slams the ban
In an interview with the state-run al-Ahram newspaper, Suleiman pledged to press ahead with his campaign.
“I am confident and have all faith that we will complete the march and this type of law will wreck the country, especially with the dominance of the Brotherhood over everything,” he said.
Suleiman, 74, publicly engaged the Brotherhood and other opposition forces during a failed effort to quell the uprising.
An army general, he is closely associated with the security policy of a state that kept the Islamists on a tight leash, maintaining an official ban on the Brotherhood and deploying heavy force against more radical Islamists who took up arms.
Suleiman and the military deny claims that his candidacy represents an army bid to keep control of the post held by ex-military men since the monarchy was overthrown in 1952.
Shater, the Brotherhood candidate, has described Suleiman’s candidacy as an insult to Egyptians who rose up against Mubarak.
However Suleiman does appear to have a constituency among Egyptians alarmed by the rise of Islamists and who see him as the kind of strong man needed to restore stability after a year of political turmoil that has hit the economy hard.
There was no sign in the square of the reformist youth protest groups that led the anti-Mubarak uprising. They are angry at the Suleiman presidential bid but are also opposed to what they see as Islamist attempts at domination.