Thousands of Egyptians took to the streets nationwide on Friday to call on the military rulers to put an end to emergency laws dating back to the rule of ousted President Hosni Mubarak and blamed for some of that era's worst human rights abuses.
The rallies in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests that forced Mubarak out of office in February, and in Alexandria and other cities were held under the slogan "Reclaiming the Revolution." The phrase reflected the fears of activists and Egypt's new crop of political parties about how the transition to democracy is being managed by a military council led by Mubarak's longtime defense minister.
The council of generals took over from Mubarak when he stepped down and pledged to end the much-hated emergency laws, hold elections and deliver the country back to civilian rule within six months. Nearly eight months have gone by, and activists have accused the military of following many of the same hated practices of the Mubarak regime, including the physical abuse of detainees and making key decisions on its own.
"The military council is bent on reproducing the former regime," said Khaled Abdel-Hamid, a protest leader, said.
The protesters in Tahrir Square got an unexpected visit Friday from actor-activist Sean Penn, who toured the vast protest zone in the morning, waving an Egyptian flag.
Protesters painted their faces with a crossed-out U-turn sign, indicating there is no going back. One banner read: "In the name of the martyrs, we will not turn back."
The 18-day protests that forced Mubarak to step down were largely led by groups of secular young people pushing for a civilian democratic system, and helped inspire uprisings in Yemen, Libya and Syria. Around 850 people were killed in the early days of the crackdown.
The military council recently announced a schedule for staggered parliamentary elections that will begin at the end of November. But protesters Friday also called for a date to be set for a presidential election, which would formally bring an end to military rule.
Many activists say the conditions surrounding the parliamentary voting threaten to produce a weak legislature controlled by the military, former regime officials and well-organized Islamist groups.
The military had promised to scrap Mubarak's emergency laws before the elections, but instead has broadened their application and prolonged their use indefinitely.
The laws give security forces great powers to detain and hold people in custody, and were widely used during election seasons under Mubarak.
Critics are also unhappy with the law governing the parliamentary election process. It denies political parties the right to nominate candidates for a third of the nearly 500 seats, which critics say is a green light for former members of the now disbanded ruling party to run as independents and snap up a parliament bloc.
Activists and political parties are threatening a boycott.
On Friday, the government said it will review that disputed article in the law, state TV reported.
Mustafa al-Naggar, a protest leader and founder of the new al-Adl, or Justice, party, said representatives of political parties were scheduled to meet with the military council on Saturday to discuss the law.
"We need public pressure," al-Naggar said from Tahrir Square.
The protest movement, however, has lost much of its popular support. Many Egyptians are growing weary of the insecurity that has plagued the transition period; while others say the military must be given more of a chance to deliver on its promises.
The well-organized Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood boycotted Friday's protests, saying there are other means to pressure the military council.