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Egyptians rally against military council

By noon Friday, Cairo's Tahrir Square, the symbol of Egypt's revolution and painful 15-month transition from authoritarian rule, was packed with Egyptian protesters, promising to be one of the largest demonstrations since the 18-day revolt last year that ousted then-President Hosni Mubarak.

The rally was called by liberals to reject the nomination of Mubarak-era figures in the presidential race. But by Friday it had morphed into a rally against the ruling military council and included a cross-section of Egypt's society with differing and competing messages. Tens of thousands joined the demonstration.

Islamists held a similar protest last week but liberals refused to join, highlighting the deep polarization of Egypt's political and revolutionary communities just weeks before the first presidential election following decades of autocratic rule. Critics say the military rulers have botched the transition.

Now, after the Muslim Brotherhood's top strategist and presidential hopeful, Khairat el-Shater, was disqualified because he was a political prisoner under Mubarak, the powerful organization urged its followers to go to the square. Shater said this week that Friday would be "the real hand-over of power" from Egypt's military rulers. They are demanding the dissolution of the presidential electoral commission that disqualified him.

Supporters of ultraconservative preacher Hazem Abu Ismail, who was disqualified because his mother is an apparent dual national (Egyptian and American), also rushed to the square Friday along with the Salafist Nour Party's supporters.

The other disqualified candidate is Mubarak's former spy chief, Omar Suleiman, who was rejected for not getting the requisite number of signatures of support. His nomination sparked wide-scale condemnation from revolutionaries, liberals, leftists and Islamists alike.

The disqualifications have brought a tentative unity among the political elite. They have been battling over the nation's future and the logistics of how to put a constitution together, and they have accused each other of selling out to the military rulers. Now many are accusing the military leaders of trying to control the outcome of the elections through the disqualifications and of interfering in the appointment of a constituent assembly, which will be given the task of writing a new constitution.

More than 50 groups participated in Friday's protests, ranging from the ultraconservative Gamaa Islamiya to the April 6 Youth Movement.

But the underlying messages are different. Women marched for more representation on the panel tasked with writing the constitution. The April 6 movement and other youth groups demand, among other things, that the constitution be written after the presidential election on May 23 and 24, a demand that Muslim Brotherhood rejects. A Salafist group called for the hand-over of power from the military to parliament.

The rally was a far cry from the unity that brought down Mubarak more than a year ago.

"Too many Stages, Too many Goals, too Many hopes and Fears," tweeted a popular Egyptian blogger who goes by the name Zeinobia.