Thousands of opponents and supporters of Egypt’s Islamist president began massing in city squares in competing rallies Sunday, gearing up for a day of massive nationwide protests that many fear could turn deadly as the opposition seeks to push out Mohammed Morsi.
Waving Egyptian flags, crowds descended on Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo, one of multiple sites in the capital and around the country where they plan rallies. Chants of “erhal!” or “leave!,” rang out in the square, birthplace of the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
On the other side of Cairo, thousands of the Islamist leader’s backers gathered not far from the presidential palace in a show of support. Some wore homemade body armour and construction hats and carried shields and clubs — precautions, they said, against possible violence.
There was a sense among opponents and supporters of Morsi that Sunday’s rally was a make-or-break day, hiking worries that the two camps will come to blows despite vows by each to remain peaceful. Already at least seven people, including an American, have been killed in clashes the past week, mainly in Nile Delta cities and the coastal city of Alexandria.
The demonstrations on Sunday, the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration as Egypt’s first freely elected leader, are the culmination of growing polarisation since he took office.
In one camp are the president and his Islamist allies, including the Muslim Brotherhood and more hard-line groups. They have vowed to defend Morsi, saying street demonstrations cannot be allowed to remove a freely elected leader.
The other is an array of secular and liberal Egyptians as well as moderate Muslims and Christians — and what the opposition says is a broad sector of the general public that has turned against the Islamists. They say the Islamists have overstepped their election mandate, accusing them of trying to monopolise power and woefully mismanaging the country.
The opposition believes that with sheer numbers in the street, it can pressure Morsi to step down — perhaps with the added weight of the powerful military if it signals the president should go.
Underlining the potential for deadly violence, a flurry of police reports on Sunday spoke of the seizure of firearms, explosives and even artillery shells in various locations of the country, including Alexandria and the outskirts of Cairo.
In an interview published Sunday in The Guardian, Morsi — who has three years left in his term — said he had no plans to meet the protesters’ demand for an early presidential election.
The opposition protests emerge from a petition campaign by a youth activist group known as Tamarod, Arabic for “rebel.” For several months, the group has been collecting signatures on a call for Morsi to step down. On Saturday the group announced it had more than 22 million signatures — proof, it claims, that a broad sector of the public no longer wants Morsi in office.