CAIRO — Tens of thousands of Islamists jammed Tahrir Square on Friday in the most significant challenge yet to the authority of Egypt's military council that seized power nine months ago with the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
The demonstration ended an uneasy truce between Egypt's Islamists and its military, which had prevailed since Mubarak's exit. The truce reached a breaking point after the military council spelled out for the first time its intention to claim a decisive role in Egyptian politics far into the future, even after parliamentary elections scheduled to begin later this month or a final handover of power to constitutional authorities some time in 2013 or beyond.
It begins a faceoff between Egypt's two most powerful institutions, its army and the once-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, that left Egyptian liberals anxious and divided on the sidelines.
Egyptian liberals, torn between their fears of Islamist power on the one hand and of military rule on the other, mostly stayed home. The Brotherhood, whose organization and discipline where honed by decades of operation under police scrutiny, dispatched hundreds of members to start camping out Thursday night in Tahrir Square, the symbolic epicenter of the popular movement that ousted Mubarak.
By Friday morning, buses arrived carrying thousands of Islamists from outside Cairo. And by 8 p.m. thousands of demonstrators appeared to be setting up camp for the night, although some were seen leaving.
The ruling military council and its caretaker government, which staged a public meeting with Islamist leaders Thursday night in an attempt to avert the protest, had issued no response Friday.
The spark for the protest was a recent set of declarations issued by the military-led government as ground rules for the drafting of a new Constitution. Many of its provisions sought to enshrine protections of individual liberties and minority rights that liberals have sought. But another provision granted the military a long-term political role as guardian of "constitutional legitimacy," which many Islamists suspect is a reference to the secular character of the state and could give the military an excuse to intervene at will.