Religion the issue at divisive Egypt demonstration

Cairo, Egypt - A huge rally Friday meant to symbolize unity highlighted instead the deepening splits between secular and religious parties over Egypt's future, signaling battles certain to unfold in coming months over the influence of Islamic law on the nation's new constitution.

The demonstration in Cairo's Tahrir Square, one of the largest since President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February, reaffirmed the power of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations that amassed tens of thousands of supporters. It came as weeks of protests have convulsed the country and polarized political parties whose true agendas are emerging.

"The people want an Islamic state," Islamists chanted while outnumbered secular demonstrators watched from the sidelines in a square streaked with religious banners and echoing with loudspeakers.

Secularist parties have pressured the ruling military council to draft guidelines to govern the writing of a constitution. The Muslim Brotherhood has criticized the move as an attempt to circumvent the new Parliament, which Islamists are expected to control, giving them power to pass a constitution weighted in Sharia law.

"I'm really scared of the potential of an Islamic state in Egypt. Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood don't allow any democracy within their movement," said Amira Badr, a 27-year-old administrator who attended the rally.

The competing goals reveal the passions and dangers the Arab's world's most populous country faces as it navigates away from the Mubarak era and toward defining Egypt's character for coming generations.

The demonstration was to be a day of putting differences aside so Islamists and secular groups could protest together in urging the military council to enact reforms and bring officials from Mubarak's regime to justice. That unity, however, was overwhelmed by calls from moderate and ultraconservative Muslims to instill the Quran into the laws of the land.

"Islamic, Islamic, we don't want it secular," shouted protesters.

Secular and youth parties worry that such sentiment could shape a constitution that doesn't protect women and non-Muslims. This concern has grown in recent months as ultraconservative Islamist groups, such as Gamma al Islamiya, which carried out terror attacks in the 1980s and '90s, have become politically active.