Hundreds of Egyptian demonstrators protested in Tahrir Square following midday prayers on Friday to register their anger over a short film produced in the US that mocks Islam and the Prophet Mohamed. Despite calls to maintain the rally's peaceful nature, limited clashes have continued to erupt near the US embassy in Cairo's Garden City district.
Following Friday midday prayers, Mazhar Shaheen, known as the "Tahrir Preacher," called on demonstrators to maintain the protests' peaceful nature and steer clear of the nearby US embassy. He also urged protesters to stage a sit-in in the flashpoint square in the event they had any outstanding demands, including an official apology from Washington.
Shaheen went on to warn that the offensive film served to promote sectarian tension between Egypt's Muslim and Christian communities. "If you love the Prophet, stay peaceful," Shaheen told the crowd.
"We don't want any more bloodshed; we've lost enough martyrs in recent months," the preacher said.
Following midday prayers, Shaheen called on protesters arrayed in the square to move to the nearby embassy and form human chains with the aim of protecting the embassy from rock-throwing protesters.
Some demonstrators waved black flags bearing the Islamic statement of faith, "There is no God but Allah." Many of the protesters, who appeared to belong to Salafist groups, demanded a robust reaction to the film.
"There must be a real boycott of America on all levels, economic and cultural," Sheikh Gamal Saber, who had campaigned for Salafist candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail in Egypt's recent presidential elections, told Ahram Online.
The Muslim Brotherhood, along with various Salafists groups, had called for peaceful mass protests on Friday outside mosques across Egypt to protest the offensive film.
"The people say the prophet is a red line," was one of the many chants heard at the scene, as scores – mostly members of Egypt's Salafist Nour Party – continued to arrive in Tahrir Square.
"I'm here to protest and tell the world that you can't tread on our dignity," said 38-year-old protester Ismail Mohamed. "We're allowed to be angry, but we must also exercise respect and show restraint."
Mohamed's sentiments reflected the general mood across the square, with several protesters stressing the right to peaceful protest while rejecting attempts to storm the US embassy.
Protester Mohamed Mizar, 39, called for steps to be taken to calm the situation. Mizar, who wore a "I love my Prophet" headband, said that Egypt's Al-Azhar University should train its alumni to visit the west and portray Islam in a positive light.
Secondly, he said that Christians and Muslims in Egypt should have real channels of communication, through which they might work out their differences. He also believes that Egyptians must work towards building a strong nation, "so that we can be strong enough to regain our dignity."
One passerby in the square, who preferred anonymity, criticised the situation, asserting that the protests were being instigated by Salafist groups with the aim of embarrassing the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi.
Wahib Hanna, a 60-year old Coptic man who shared this view, said: "Any offense to the Prophet is an offense to all of Egypt's Coptic-Christians."
Meanwhile, for the fourth day running, anti-film demonstrators also continued to protest outside the nearby US embassy, which has remained the scene of on-again, off-again clashes.
Early Friday afternoon, limited clashes re-ignited outside the embassy grounds between police and hundreds of protesters. Both sides pelted each other with stones while police forces lobbed teargas canisters into the crowd.
By midday, however, clashes seemed to have subsided by the embassy, where a few dozen young protesters could be seen standing – amid rubble and shattered glass – in front of a wall erected earlier in the day.
In the morning, Egyptian army personnel began construction of a wall surrounding the embassy with the aim of protecting the building from angry protesters.
At the back of the nearby Omar Makram Mosque, on a side street leading to the US embassy, ambulances tended to those injured in the embassy clashes. Most injuries were the result of smoke inhalation and rock throwing.
At one point, an American journalist was seen being threatened by a masked protester. This came following earlier reports of hostilities against foreign journalists in the square.
One bystander who witnessed the incident, a student from Upper Egypt, stated: "I don't agree with what the protesters are doing; I bet none of them have actually seen the offensive film."
He added that many protesters, mostly young men, simply wanted to fight with police.
Within the last 48 hours, more than 220 protesters have been reported injured in limited clashes with security forces. On Friday alone, at least 12 were reported injured.
Another passerby, riding a red motorcycle, shouted: "This isn't our religion. We don't call for violence. Neither our religion nor our prophet would approve of this. I want the violence to stop."
Ahmed Seif, a 26-year-old television producer and member of the Salafist Calling, said he completely rejected the violent turn of events.
Still struggling with teargas inhalation, he stated: "I want everyone protesting at the embassy to leave the premises; if we have demands, let's stage a sit-in in the square."
Clashes also broke out in front of the nearby Semiramis InterContinental Hotel, where police vans deployed in an effort to force protesters back towards Tahrir.
In the provinces
In Egypt's coastal city of Alexandria, dozens of protesters – mostly sporting beards – gathered outside the American consulate, where they set fire to US and Israeli flags to protest the anti-Islam film.
While protesters called for "vengeance," they also stressed that they were not associated with any formal Islamist movements.
Meanwhile, in the Nile Delta governorate of Damanhour, thousands of protesters took to the streets to call for the punishment of the film's producer.
In Kafr El-Sheikh, in the north-western delta, a joint protest held by the Muslim Brotherhood, the liberal Free Egyptians party and the Salafist Nour Party kicked off following Friday prayers.
"Barbarian America, this is wickedness not freedom," protesters chanted as they marched in the northern city of Gharbiya.
Similar protests were also staged in Mahalla Al-Kubra, Mansoura, South Sinai, Port Said, Suez, Qena, Sohag, Assiut and Hurghada.
The Muslim Brotherhood, for its part, has organised protests all over the country, including demonstrations in Beheira, Damietta, Luxor, and other governorates.
In the eastern delta, Farid Ismail, a member of Egypt's Constituent Assembly (tasked with drafting a new constitution) and secretary of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party in Sharqiya, said that the anti-Islam film had opened the US up to charges of protecting "terrorism and contempt for Islam."