CAIRO, (Reuters) – More than 200 Egyptians protested against President Mohamed Mursi in Cairo on Friday, challenging the Islamist president and his Muslim Brotherhood group on the street less than two months into his rule with a first test of his popularity.
But several liberal groups that are usually critical of the Brotherhood have not backed the protest. Among those staying away is April 6 youth movement, which had helped galvanize the street against ousted President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Activists behind Friday’s call to protest accuse Mursi of seeking to monopolize power after he wrested back prerogatives in August that the military council, which had ruled Egypt for a year and a half, had sought to retain for itself.
“Wake up Egyptian people. Don’t fall for the Brotherhood,” said Mahmoud, in his 50s, addressing about 200 people in Tahrir Square, the heart of Cairo where protests brought down Mubarak in February last year.
“Egypt is for all Egyptians, not only one group,” said Mahmoud, who only gave his first name, as he stood on a motorbike in the square where traffic was flowing through.
Protests tend to build later in the day in the hot summer.
The organizers, among them opposition politician Mohamed Abou Hamed, also want a probe into the funding of the Brotherhood, repressed by Mubarak during his 30-year rule but which has dominated the political scene since he was toppled.
In a morning headline ahead of the protests that had been trailed for a few weeks, the independent daily Al Masry Al Youm called the demonstration “the first test for Mursi”.
Organizers, who had named several gathering points, said they planned to march towards the presidential palace to protest against Mursi, who was sworn in on June 30, becoming Egypt’s first president who was not drawn from military ranks.
“Both Tantawi and the Brotherhood stole the revolution and destroyed Egypt,” said Mohsen Abed Rabuh, a government worker, referring to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Egypt’s interim ruler, who was dismissed by Mursi this month.
He was speaking in Cairo’s Abbasiya area, near the Defence Ministry, where dozens of protesters had gathered and more were congregating. It was the site of clashes between protesters and soldiers earlier this year when the army was still in charge.
The road leading to the ministry was cordoned off.
Security officials said it would protect peaceful protests but would act firmly against any lawbreakers after reports in the press and speculation on social media suggested protesters could target Brotherhood premises.
The Facebook page calling for the protest said it would be “peaceful” and those involved would not resort to violence.
April 6 said in a statement before the protest that it disagreed with the Brotherhood on many issues but added: “Does all that and more push us to issue a judgment now to burn the group’s members or premises and exile them from the country?”
Ahmed Said, head of the Free Egyptians, another liberal group staying away, wrote on Facebook: “Those who want to bring down the Brotherhood should bring them down via elections.”
Mursi, propelled to the presidency by the well-organized Brotherhood, has formally resigned from the group saying he wanted to represent the whole nation in office.
Among criticisms of Mursi have been accusations that he has sought to muzzle the media. Critics point to a trial of two journalists, including the editor of the opposition newspaper Al-Dostour, for insulting the president.
Mursi went some way to deflecting criticism when he issued a law on Thursday, his first use of legislative power he wrested from the army, banning pre-trial detention of journalists. The Al-Dostour editor had been ordered detained just hours earlier.
But activists said more should be done.
“We welcome President Mursi’s decision to ban pre-trial detention but urge thorough reform that repeals the archaic laws criminalizing the reporting of news and the expression of opinion,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, in a statement.
Some liberals have backed Mursi’s early moves, including his August 12 decision to dismiss top generals, who were seen as obstructing civilian rule, and to cancel a decree that had given the army legislative power in the absence of the parliament.
The lower house, dominated by Mursi’s Brotherhood, was dissolved by the military in June, based on a court order, shortly before the end of the presidential race.
Some analysts say one of the biggest tests Mursi faces is whether he can turn around the stricken economy. Anger at the gaping rich-poor divide was a major spark for the anti-Mubarak revolt. But that challenge may take longer to play out.
This week, Egypt started talks for a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, which could help rebuild confidence in a nation that was once a darling of frontier market investors.