CAIRO - Several thousand hard-line Islamists rallied in Cairo on Friday against a recent wave of violent anti-government protests, while liberal activists staged a smaller demonstration across town to call for accountability and justice from the country's leaders.
The parallel rallies mirror the deep divisions that have plagued Egypt in the two years since longtime autocrat Hosni Mubark's ouster, leaving the country's politics polarized, its people frustrated and its economy battered by the continuous turmoil.
The current cycle of unrest erupted three weeks ago around the second anniversary of the uprising that toppled Mubarak. The opposition accuses Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, who was elected in June, and his Muslim Brotherhood party of trying to monopolize power.
The opposition also wants Morsi to amend a contentious constitution that was passed in a nationwide vote late last year after the president's Islamist allies rushed to finalize and approve the document in a drafting committee. The president and his backers counter that the opposition's relentless protests calling for reform have hurt the economy and have made implementing changes impossible.
Egypt's economy took another hit this week, with Moody's rating agency downgrading five of the country's banks, citing "the weakening capacity of the Egyptian authorities to support the government-owned banks." Egypt's foreign currency reserves have fallen below the central bank's "critical minimum" to $13.61 billion, threatening the country's ability to secure a nearly $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund that could free up other loan requests.
In a show of support for the president on Friday, around 5,000 Islamist supporters gathered in front of Cairo University for a rally dubbed "No to violence." Some of the demonstrators carried aloft banners that read: "People want an iron fist" and "Yes to Islamic law," while others chanted, "People want the law of God to be implemented."
The protest was largely seen as a denunciation of the anti-government demonstrations in recent weeks that have frequently turned violent, leaving more than 70 people dead.
"I would like to tell the people who are attacking the police by throwing firebombs at them that this is unacceptable," said Mahmoud Mamdouh, who was protesting outside the university. "These are our people and these buildings that are getting destroyed are our property."
In Cairo, prominent figures such as Mohammed el-Beltagi of the Muslim Brotherhood, spoke to the Islamist crowd atop a stage erected in the square that had a large banner with the image of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman on it. Known as the blind sheik, Abdel-Rahman is serving a life sentence in the United States for being the spiritual leader of men convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
"We are here in solidarity against violence and bloodshed, and the cutting off of roads and attacks on institutions," el-Beltagi told the crowd, according to remarks carried by the Brotherhood party's Facebook page. "These are crimes whose sphere is in the courtroom and not in politics."
The rally was organized by Gamaa Islamiya, an ex-jihadist group whose members were imprisoned for decades under the former regime. The group's political party only won a small number of seats in last year's parliamentary elections, but has a widespread network of supporters across Egypt.
Egypt's most powerful Islamist groups — the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafi parties — did not officially participate.
Across town, a smaller crowd of around 1,000 liberal activists rallied outside the Qasr al-Kobba palace, one of the president's secondary palaces. It is considered symbolic like the main palace where clashes between police and protesters have been taking place for weeks.
In a separate march, several thousand people descended on the Defence Ministry calling for retribution for the deaths of protesters during military rule. Another march headed to the main courthouse to demand justice for a 12 year-old vendor killed by the military earlier this month. The armed forces issued a rare apology for the death, and a military prosecutor detained a soldier for 15 days pending investigation.
Friday's protests, which do not officially include the main opposition coalition, were led mostly by youth who waved pictures of protesters killed in past demonstrations. Much of the anger directed at the government stems from frustration with the pace of reform under Morsi as well as the continued killing of unarmed protesters by police.
The greatest number of deaths in the recent wave of violence occurred in Port Said after a court sentenced 21 of the city's die-hard soccer fans to death last month for involvement in a deadly soccer riot. The verdict sparked attacks on government facilities and police in Port Said. Around 2,000 people protested in the city Friday to demand that dozens of residents killed in the riots there be deemed "martyrs" by the government.
Associated Press writer Mariam Rizk contributed to this report.