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As divided as ever, Egypt’s revolutionaries return to Tahrir Square

From a distance, the massive demonstration Friday in Tahrir Square recalled what Egyptians consider the good old days of their uprising: thousands of protesters, Islamists and liberals alike, converging to demand the ouster of outdated authoritarians.

Among the throngs, however, the revolutionary movement appeared more diffuse than ever, with Islamists campaigning for their presidential candidates, youth activists demanding justice for slain protesters and liberals weighing their fears of a religious state against their commitment to democratic elections. The protesters’ disarray has complicated the presidential polls, set for the end of May, with the contenders accusing one another of selling out the revolution’s ideals for narrow party interests.

“It’s the worst, what’s happening here today,” said Bahaa Galal, 21, a student who watched the disjointed scene with his arms crossed and brow furrowed. “We’re supposed to be here for one demand: The end of military rule, and whoever isn’t here working for that isn’t one of us.”

Though some protesters worried about violence after nightfall, the daytime demonstration was peaceful and festive. A single kite soared overhead. The air, so often filled with the potent smell of tear gas, carried only scents of roasting sweet potatoes and popcorn. Children with their faces painted with revolutionary slogans ate candied apples and ice cream. The Islamists’ loud Quran recitations commingled with the drumming of leftist students.

“This is the revival of the revolution. For a while, we thought it was failing, but this is a very, very, very good sign,” said May Aboul Dahab, 69, a former diplomat and self-described liberal.

But cracks in the facade of unity appeared in sideline shouting matches over clashing ideologies and heated disputes about whether vacating the square or holding the territory was the better strategy for dislodging the stubborn military council that’s ruled Egypt in the 15 months since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.

The popular uprising that was considered remarkable because it was leaderless now suffers from a surplus of self-appointed leaders. The rival factions in Tahrir Square occupied their own distinct stages, like the cliques at different tables in a high school cafeteria: the confident Muslim Brotherhood, the angry Salafists, the rebellious soccer clubs, the vulnerable liberals, the outcast leftists.

Liberal groups had called for the protest, and the Islamists later backed it after the election commission disqualified two Islamist front-runners in the presidential race.

“The Islamists only decided to join because they know they lost a lot of ground since the parliamentary election. People are finding out who they really are,” grumbled Dahab, who only moments before had celebrated the semblance of unity in the square.

Even within the typically disciplined Muslim Brotherhood, the internal discord is becoming increasingly obvious to the masses. On Friday, Kamal el Hebawy, a top Brotherhood figure who left the group the moment it reneged on a promise to stay out of the presidential race, lambasted his former comrades, in particular the speaker of Parliament, the Brotherhood’s Saad el Katatny.

“I wish the Parliament that gained its legitimacy from the square was here among the columns of revolutionaries. I wish Katatny was here on this stage,” Hebawy told large crowds of supporters from a main stage.

Two longtime Brotherhood members, friends from the group’s rank and file, shrugged off the familiar refrain: The Brotherhood has sold out the revolution, backtracking on promises of power-sharing and positioning itself to dominate Parliament, the panel that’s drafting a new constitution and, now, the presidency.

“I ask them back: What did we gain, the Brotherhood?” said Sobhi Tawfik, 35, a 15-year member. “The parliamentary seats we won by fair election, but after that, our development projects have been totally halted. The military is blocking us down to the municipal level.”

“We came down for the same reasons as everybody else,” added his friend, Mamdouh el Bilasi, 41. “We feel the revolution is being stolen.”

(McClatchy special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed to this article.)

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