CAIRO, Egypt — Thousands of Egyptian protesters returned to the streets of Tahrir Square on Friday, calling for greater political reform from their military, which has governed the nation in the five months since the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak.
Demonstrators in Tahrir openly criticized the rule of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, in sharp contrast to the solidarity and affection displayed between protesters and the military during the 18-day uprising in January.
Organizers presented a long list of demands to the transitional government, including the suspension of police officers charged with killing protesters during Egypt's uprising, an end to civilian trials in military courts and the swifter prosecution of former Mubarak allies accused of power abuse.
Most people in Tahrir were simply frustrated with the pace of reform with less than three months to go before parliamentary elections.
"We feel like the revolution has been taken away from us," said Ahmed al-Bashir, 55, himself a former brigadier general in Egypt's army.
"And we will continue to sit-in in Tahrir until all of our demands are met. We will stay even if we have to die for change."
The rally on Friday drew the largest crowd of anti-government protesters since Mubarak's resignation on Feb. 11, even though it fell well shy of the planned "million-person march."
There was a jubilant, sometimes festive mood in the crowded square, reminiscent of the unity displayed during the January revolution, in spite of the intense mid-day Cairo heat.
Oversized Egyptian flags were unfurled into the scorching summer air immediately following the afternoon prayers on Friday. Thousands in the crowd screamed, "Hand in hand, we are one!"
Various political factions — from secular liberals to leftists — temporarily cast aside their differences to focus on challenging Egypt's transitional government.
Even Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest and best-organized political movement of Islamists, supported the call to protest in Tahrir after initially declining an invitation.
"The demands we have today will benefit the entire society," said Sheikh Ahmed Said Mohamed, a Muslim Brotherhood member who traveled to Tahrir from Mansoura in Egypt's northern Delta region. "Each of us is calling for more freedom and justice."
The rare display of opposition unity at the rally, which was billed by some as the "Friday of perseverance," came after an unusually tumultuous week of unrest in Egypt's capital.
Hundreds of people were injured on June 29 after Egyptian police forces violently dispersed a demonstration in the streets near Tahrir with hours-long volleys of tear gas. Both camps also lobbed rocks and chunks of asphalt at each other.
Anger on the streets intensified this week after a Cairo court ordered the release on bail of several police officers accused of killing 17 protesters in Suez during the uprising.
Hundreds of Egyptians rioted in the port city along the Suez Canal on Wednesday, torching security vehicles and hurling rocks at government buildings.
Several former ministers — as well as Mubarak himself — still face trial on charges of abuse of power and for ordering the killing of Egyptian protesters during the revolution.
But after three ex-ministers were acquitted in a corruption case earlier this week, pessimism has remained extremely high.
"We want to move the country forward politically, but the armed forces are moving too slowly with real justice," said Tamer Kandil, 30, a secular liberal activist in Tahrir. "Protesting here is the only way our voices will be heard."
The government, though, may finally be listening.
On Thursday, Egypt's interior ministry announced that hundreds of high-ranking police officers accused of violence during the uprising would be fired.
Egypt's prosecutor also announced on Thursday that several Mubarak allies — including the former speaker of parliament — would be tried for allegedly ordering the so-called "Battle of the Camel" on Feb. 2, when hundreds were injured in one of the worst days of violence during the revolution.
Egyptian police forces, the target of widespread anger during the uprising, were also reportedly given orders to avoid Tahrir on Friday in a bid to reduce the possibility of more clashes.
Still, the government continued to assign much of the blame elsewhere, pointing fingers at a somewhat mysterious "organized element" it believes is seeking to harm the country.
Be on the lookout in Tahrir for "plots aiming to incite chaos in order to tarnish the country's image," warned Egypt's cabinet in a statement on Thursday.
Just who or what the government was referring to was not entirely clear in Tahrir.
"The army thinks we're all thugs," said protester Buthaina Said, 36, who fought back against the police with rocks during the clashes last week.
"Our demands are legitimate. And if they don't agree, then label me a 'thug'," she said.
Elsewhere in the square, however, there was an overwhelming sense of tension that former regime officials were paying certain counter-revolutionary elements to crash the party in the square.
Protesters apprehended several "baltagiya" — Arabic for “thugs” — early on Friday morning. The young men, many of whom were beaten upon capture, were reportedly trying to enter Tahrir with knives.
"Baltagiya" used to refer primarily to the henchmen that many Egyptians believe Mubarak hired to help violently suppress civil demonstrations throughout the country.
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But in the turbulent period that followed Egypt's revolution — and with Mubarak not around to blame — baltagiya has been used more and more frequently to describe anyone, or anything, fomenting discord in a country struggling to regain some semblance of stability.
For some Egyptians, that even applies to the protesters in Tahrir.
One block east of the square, on a street that was a focal point for clashes between protesters and police forces last week, there were signs that continued demonstrations in Egypt were destabilizing the country's already battered post-revolution economy.
Businesses were shuttered and boarded up, fearful that frustration in Tahrir would boil over into the same type of violence that has become so common in recent weeks.
Mohamed Khallaf, an elderly fruit vendor selling grapes and mangoes near Tahrir, watched as his wares were completely destroyed by angry protesters during the January uprising.
Then last week, crowds converged on his narrow street to battle Egyptian police forces, destroying a box of his expensive apples in the process.
"There are good people protesting in Tahrir these days. But there are some baltagiya, looters, and thieves mixed in with them," said Khallaf. "The problem is you can not differentiate who is who anymore."