Tens of thousands of Egyptians led by hard-line Islamists escalated their protests Friday over the appointment of a Coptic Christian governor in southern Egypt, deepening mistrust between religious communities during the bumpy aftermath of Egypt's revolution.
More than a week of protests seeking to unseat the governor of Qena province are testing the ability of Egypt's transitional military rulers and the interim government to handle an Islamic movement capable of rallying large numbers behind its hard-line agenda without jeopardizing the future of a democratic Egypt.
Since President Hosni Mubarak's ouster in February after an 18-day popular uprising, ultraconservative Islamist groups have been flexing their muscles and vowing to take a more active political role as Egypt charts its transition to democracy.
Friday's demonstrations were the largest so far in the campaign against the newly appointed Qena governor, Emad Mikhail, and coincided with Good Friday services for most of Egypt's estimated 10 million Christians.
Protesters streamed out of the main weekly Muslim prayer services and gathered in front of the governor's office and at other public squares, calling for Mikhail to be replaced by a Muslim governor.
Crowds barricaded vital train lines, blocked main roads and took over government buildings.
The bulk of the protesters were driven by a sectarian cause, believing it is not proper for a Christian to govern Muslims, who make up the majority of the population.
Egypt's interim prime minister sent a key government minister in charge of security to meet with the protesters but he failed to persuade them to clear roads and train lines.
The protesters were not solely Islamists. The crowds also included Christians who object to the governor on the basis that Christian leaders often fail to adequately defend their cause because they feel compelled to side with Muslims in sectarian disputes to demonstrate good intentions.
They cited the previous Christian governor, who they say was a "complete failure," according to one priest who joined the protests and asked not to be identified for security reasons.
Another segment of Friday's crowd of protesters objects to the governor because he once served as a high-ranking officer in the police force, which has one of the worst reputations for abuse during Mubarak's three-decade rule. Mikhail, however, is not among the dozens of security officials now under detention over various allegations, including the killings of protesters.
Coptic Christians make up an estimated 10 percent of Egypt's population of nearly 80 million and complain of discrimination. Relations between the two faiths plunged to new lows after a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a Coptic church in Alexandria on Jan. 1, killing 21 people and injuring 100 others.
Salafis, who seek to emulate the lifestyle of Islam's early days in the seventh century, have for the past year played a key role in fueling sectarian tensions, spearheading protests against the Orthodox Christian church.
Security officials say they played a role in the deadly clashes between Christians and Muslims in Cairo last month, which followed the burning of a church south of the city. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to share the information with the media.
So far, Egypt's post-Mubarak rulers, apparently wary of stoking public anger, have taken no direct action to confront the Salafists.
On Friday the first Salafi political party sought official recognition.
One of the founders of the Alexandria-based Nour party, Yasser Metwali, said it would not stray from Islamic teachings under any circumstances. As an example, he said the party would oppose the appointment of a non-Muslim as Egypt's president.
"These are from the basics that we will not negotiate on," he said.
He said the number of Salafis in Egypt was as big as the Coptic Christian minority.
Fearing violence in another southern province Friday, the army and police deployed additional forces and barricaded streets around churches in Minya during Good Friday prayers.
The tense atmosphere drew some activists to call on Muslims to show solidarity with Christians and act as "human shields" to protect churches around the country during Easter Mass, which extends to after midnight Saturday.
Meanwhile, Egypt's general prosecutor extended the detention of Mubarak for a second 15-day period to allow questioning to continue over the killings of protesters.
The prosecutor also added a new allegation of harming the country's national interests after striking a much criticized gas deal with Israel at below-market prices. Mubarak was interrogated at a hospital in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where he was first placed under detention last week. He was taken to the hospital for unspecified heart problems.
On Thursday, a medical team was dispatched to check on Mubarak's health and decide whether to move him to a prison hospital near Cairo.