The past week has seen significant shifts and changes in Egypt’s revolution.
Last Friday, Islamist organisations brought supporters from across Egypt to call for religious reforms and to back the generals against those who demand the end of military rule.
This was the first national mobilisation of Islamists during Egypt’s revolution and provided welcome relief for the generals’ Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
Activists, frustrated by the slow pace of change, are piling pressure onto the SCAF.
Islamist organisations bussed supporters in from all over Egypt. Many came from provincial towns and from villages which have so far been on the margins of the revolution.
They chanted slogans for the introduction of religious law, alarming those accustomed to the largely secular character of mass rallies which crowd Tahrir.
Time magazine called it “a frightening spectacle” for the revolutionary movement.
But the demonstration brought mixed news for both Islamists and the generals.
It took months of preparation—a contrast to the speed with which protests usually fill Tahrir.
The Islamist movement is often depicted in the media as Egypt’s most coherent political force. Friday exposed the competing factions within it.
The rally was called by Salafi groups—ultra-conservative networks of Muslim activists whose focus is on piety and observance of religious law. They do not have strong political organisation, although they have recently formed a party, Al Nour.
“Jihadi” organisations also took part. They were suppressed under Mubarak but SCAF has released its leaders from prison.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest Islamist organisation, joined the rally at the last moment—apparently fearful of losing influence to Islamic rivals.
The Islamist movement is not a monolithic bloc ready to seize the revolution and construct a religious state.
It is an unstable network which both draws and repels supporters as social and political struggles ebb and flow.
The Islamists back SCAF in the hope of benefiting from its support in forthcoming elections. They praise the generals as guardians of “national unity” but fail to address the problems of daily life in Egypt.
These include unemployment, stagnant wages, rising prices of staple foods and fuel, and a massive housing crisis.
Nor do they tackle issues which have brought tens of millions of people into political activity since January: the corruption of Egypt’s businessmen, landowners and officials—and the cruelty of police who for decades have tortured and abused.
Those attracted by Islamic currents are often disappointed by their compromises.
The Muslim Brotherhood has experienced serious problems since its leaders tried to stop supporters joining the movement against Hosni Mubarak.
Leading members of the Brotherhood and large groups of its youth have split from the main party. They have been pulled by the success of the movement in the streets and the workplaces.
They have denounced its leaders for conservatism and compromise.
The appearance of the Islamists in a major national rally is a significant development.
But it is one that should not detract the left from demands for further change.
Indeed, it is the success of the revolutionary movement in achieving tangible gains for the mass of people which will weaken the influence of conservative religious forces.