Egypt Protest Attracts Islamists, Secular Activists

Virtually all of Egypt's post-revolutionary political parties are planning major demonstrations in Cairo and other cities Friday. It amounts to a test of wills with the ruling military council over the direction of the country. At issue is a document from the generals aimed at guiding the drafting of a new constitution. Critics call it an attempt to enshrine military rule.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In a rare move, Islamist and secular activists in Egypt are joining forces in Cairo's Tahrir Square and other major cities to pressure their military rulers to cede control to an elected civilian government next year. What sparked the protest is a document drafted by the interim government that would give the Egyptian armed forces unchecked power. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson joined us from Tahrir Square.

And, Soraya, describe the crowds there where you are.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: You see many people waving Egyptian flags and Muslim Brotherhood flags. The Muslim Brotherhood Islamist movement here actually is the key organizer of today's events. Although, as you mentioned, many other groups are joining them, even secular ones.

MONTAGNE: What specifically are they demanding?

NELSON: Well, the concern is that the military is trying to put itself above the law and retain power in some way, a very significant way, after the civilian elected – or the elected civilian government takes charge next year.

And the way they're doing this, is by having the interim government issue principles which would make the military the "guardian," quote, unquote, of this new constitution that's being drafted. Which means that they can dissolve the civilian committee that's going to be coming up with that document if they don't like the way they're progressing.

And it also places itself - the military's placing itself, or wants to place itself, outside of civilian oversight, so that the budget and any key policy decisions regarding the armed forces would remain with the armed forces.

MONTAGNE: OK. So Egypt is now being ruled by the military. It's got an interim government, but it's been appointed by the military. What are they saying about this protest?

NELSON: Well, they've been very silent. There've been no announcements or warnings to tell people not to be here in the square. And you have to remember, this is a protest that's actually against the military. This is something the military rulers do not tolerate well here. But they have said nothing so far.

The only statement that's come out was by the former intelligence chief, who was also the vice president, Omar Suleiman, who yesterday on his Facebook page condemned this and said that the method to solving these issues or coming to an agreement is through negotiations and not protests and threats.

MONTAGNE: But the protests are being allowed?

NELSON: At the moment, yes. It is important to note that security forces are blocking off streets. They're very well aware of what's going on. We did see a helicopter flying overhead earlier, a military helicopter. So they're obviously keeping a close eye on what's happening here.

MONTAGNE: And for the protestors, if they don't get what they want, what's next? What are they planning?

NELSON: Well, the Brotherhood has said that they don't plan to spend the night here, which is something that has, in the past, caused the military to come out and react. However, having said that, this is going to be the first of what will probably be many protests and increasing public pressure on the military to cede the civilian government control.

MONTAGNE: I hear some protestors there behind you.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Renee. Thanks.

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