The mood of the rally was exuberant, not angry, and participants were eager to explain their religious views at length to a visiting American. A good number of the demonstrators were members of Gama'a Islamiya, a group that killed hundreds of policemen and civilians and dozens of tourists in the 1990s; it counts among its leaders the blind sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who is serving a life sentence for involvement in the first World Trade Center bombing. The group officially renounced violence in 2003 and won 13 seats in parliament last year.
But neither President Mohammed Morsi, nor the powerful Muslim Brotherhood movement from which he emerged, is ready to oblige the conservative salafis on the question of sharia. The Brotherhood controls the panel that is drafting a new constitution, which has retained wording calling for all laws to be in accordance with "the principles of sharia." This wording is vague enough to mollify non-Islamist members of the panel. The salafis, on the other hand, want more specific language that would make laws subject to "the rulings of sharia." Religious scholars would determine which laws did or did not meet that requirement.
Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, however, worked underground for decades and has learned the ways of compromise and political maneuvering; it knows that endorsing the salafis' demands would cause it trouble at home and abroad, from Western countries whose help they need with international loans and investments.
So the Brotherhood did not officially participate in the rally nor did the salafi Nour party, which became politically attuned after it won a large minority bloc of seats in 2011 parliamentary elections. The absence from the square of these two groups, both of which have the ability to turn out large crowds, guaranteed an attendance that was relatively small, at maximum 10,000 people and probably less.
The small turnout doesn't mean the salafis will quietly drop their efforts. Far less politically sophisticated and more open than Brotherhood members about their aims, these small-town teachers, farmers, laborers, medical personnel, and clerics are deeply convinced that only Islamic law can combat corruption and disorder. They expressed disdain toward the Brotherhood, and toward salafis who have diluted their religious purity and are willing to compromise, claiming they have become "secular."
"Only sharia can spread justice and give us the rights that have been stolen from us for years," a bulky retiree named Yusri Mohammed Fahmi said with fervor. "Life was very disciplined in the seventh century," said Ehab El Sayyed, a small-restaurant owner, when queried if he really wanted to return to rules devised by the second caliph who ruled after the death of the prophet Muhammad. "There were no prisons. If someone killed another person, he was killed as punishment."
One important question is whether, if their demands are not met, some of these groups will return to violence. Members of Gama'a Islamiya, many of whom served long jail terms, said their struggle would remain peaceful. However, one speaker at the rally, Hazem Abu Ismail - who was briefly a presidential candidate, and is known for inflammatory pledges to end the peace treaty with Israel and to segregate women - was less conciliatory. He said that if the constitution did not endorse sharia, salafis would take to the streets and never go home.
In the short term, the splits within salafi circles between the purists and newborn pragmatists will dilute their impact. Reveling in their new freedom to protest and proselytize, these fundamentalists won't unduly threaten the government, for now.
But the failure of salafi demands doesn't mean ultraconservatives won't have some impact on the constitution. Liberal and leftist members of the constitutional assembly still complain that Islamists dominate the body. They fear the Brotherhood may try to appease its salafi critics by inserting provisions that will diminish the rights of individuals, especially women.
For the salafis in Tahrir Square such niceties ignore the self-evident truths they mouth with absolute certainty. "Parliament must obey God's law," one demonstrator insisted. Another said, "God gave us the Nile and the good life. We should obey God so there will be no more Hurricane Sandy." Then he marched forward with his black flag.
E-mail Trudy Rubin at email@example.com.