Egyptian security forces fired tear gas in Cairo's Tahrir Square to disperse anti-government protesters Sunday, as a new constitution that would reinforce the military's political power edged closer to approval.
"The people want to topple the regime," chanted several hundred protesters who descended on the square as voting was underway on a draft constitution that would ban all religious parties.
Though it only lasted about half an hour before security forces acted, it appeared to be the biggest protest by Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers in Tahrir since deposed President Mohamed Morsi's fall in early July. An Egyptian court in September banned all activities by the Brotherhood on the basis of national security.
One protester scaled a lamppost where he hung a picture of Morsi. Others flashed the four-finger hand sign denoting sympathy with the hundreds of Morsi supporters shot dead by the security forces when they broke up their Cairo sit-ins Aug. 14.
Some of the protesters said they were not from the Brotherhood. "I want Sisi out and a real end to army rule," said Ramez Ibrahim, 32, a professor of political science, referring to armed forces chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Army vehicles moved in to drive the demonstrators away and later sealed off the square completely. Some passersby shouted abuse at the protesters; others waved in support.
The government says it is determined to implement a law passed last week that heavily restricts protests. Criticized by the United States, the law has hardened fears of pro-democracy campaigners about the future of political freedoms in Egypt.
A few hundred yards from Tahrir Square, the 50-member constituent assembly was voting on the draft constitution, the provisions of which include a ban on parties formed on a religious basis. Islamist parties like the Brotherhood and the hardline Nour party, which backed Morsi's ouster, have won all national votes.
The draft constitution reflects how the balance of power has shifted in Egypt since secular-minded generals deposed Morsi in July after mass protests against him. It contains language that could ban Islamist parties outright.
The Nour party has described the draft as "satisfying."
A major milestone in Egypt's political roadmap, the constitution must be approved in a referendum before new elections, which Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, driven underground by security measures and a legal ban, is unlikely to contest.
The new constitution will replace one drafted by an Islamist-dominated assembly and signed into law by Morsi last year, after it was approved in a referendum. The new text strips out Islamist-inspired additions introduced last year.
The 2011 Tahrir Square uprising awoke hopes of a new era of freedom in Egypt, which is the world’s most populous Arab nation. But three years of turmoil have made many Egyptians yearn for stability.
Sisi is now seen as an army strongman and a front-runner for the presidency, though he has yet to declare his candidacy.
Morsi's fall set off the bloodiest bout of internal strife in Egypt's modern history, with hundreds of his partisans killed and armed attacks on the security forces becoming commonplace.