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Islamists show strong unity in Egyptian demonstration

By By Anthony Shadid
New York Times / July 30, 2011

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CAIRO - Tens of thousands of Egyptian Islamists poured into Tahrir Square yesterday calling for a state bound by strict religious law and delivering a persuasive show of force in a turbulent country showing deep divisions and growing signs of polarization.

The shape of Egypt five months into its revolution remains distinctly undecided, and Islamists have long been the most organized political force in the religiously conservative country. Some activists speculated that their show of strength would serve as a jolt to the secular forces who helped start the revolution but who remain divided, largely ineffectual, and woefully unprepared for coming elections.

Others speculated that it might force groups to pick sides where the glow of unity after President Hosni Mubarak’s fall in February has dimmed amid recriminations over the pace, style, and substance of change.

“Islamic, Islamic,’’ went a popular chant. “Neither secular nor liberal.’’

After days of negotiations between the rival factions, the demonstration yesterday had been billed as a show of national unity, but adherents to a spectrum of religious movements - from the most puritan and conservative, known as Salafists, to the comparatively more moderate Muslim Brotherhood - vastly outnumbered other voices in a sun-drenched Tahrir Square. The numbers of Salafists represented the most definitive declaration yet that they represent a formidable force in Egyptian politics, riding an ascent since the revolution that has surprised and unnerved many secular and liberal activists - and poses new challenges to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Though the rally was peaceful, the few secular activists who attended contended that they were silenced; some said they were escorted from the square. Most of them decided to boycott the event, in protest of the demonstration’s tone, ceding the square to the more religious.

Some activists were calling yesterday’s demonstration a turning point - a remarkable display of the Islamists’ ability to monopolize space, be it Tahrir Square, the streets, or the coming elections, and of their skill at organization and mobilization.

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