Both sides insist they plan no violence but accuse the other- and agents provocateurs from the old regime – of planning it.
Helicopter gunships flew over Cairo. The U.S.-equipped army, though showing little sign of wanting power, warns it may step in if deadlocked politicians let violence slip out of control.
U.S. President Barack Obama called for dialogue and warned trouble in the biggest Arab nation could unsettle an already turbulent Middle East. Washington has evacuated non-essential personnel and reinforced security at its diplomatic missions.
In an interview with London’s Guardian newspaper, Mursi repeated accusations against what he sees as attempts by entrenched interests from the Mubarak era to foil his attempt to govern. But he dismissed the demands that he give up and resign.
If that became the norm, he said, “well, there will be people or opponents opposing the new president too, and a week or a month later, they will ask him to step down.”
Liberal leaders say nearly half the voting population – 22million people – has signed a petition calling for new elections, although there is no obvious challenger to Mursi.
The opposition, fractious and defeated in a series of ballots last year, hope that by putting millions on the streets they can force Mursi to relent and hand over to a technocrat administration that can organize new elections.
“We all feel we’re walking on a dead-end road and that the country will collapse,” said Mohamed ElBaradei, a former U.N. nuclear watchdog chief, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and now liberal party leader in his homeland.
Religious authorities have warned of “civil war”. The army insists it will respect the “will of the people.”
Islamists interpret that to mean army support for election results. Opponents believe that the army may heed the popular will as expressed on the streets, as it did in early 2011 when the generals decided Mubarak’s time was up.
A military source said the army was using its helicopters to monitor the numbers out on the streets. Its estimate on Tahrir in mid-afternoon was 40-50,000, with a few thousands at similar protest sites in other major cities.
It put the number at the Islamists’ Cairo camp at 17,000.Having staged shows of force earlier this month, the Brotherhood has not called on its supporters to go out on Sunday.
Among the Islamists in Cairo, Ahmed Hosny, 37, said: “I came here to say, ‘We are with you Mursi, with the legitimate order and against the thugs.’
“This is our revolution and no one will take it from us.”
At Tahrir Square, banners ranged from “The Revolution Goes On”, “Out, Out Like Mubarak” to “Obama Backs Terrorism” – a reference to liberal anger at perceived U.S. support for Mursi’s legitimacy and its criticism of protests as bad for the economy.
“I am here to bring down Mursi and the Brotherhood,” said Ahmed Ali al-Badri, a feed merchant in a white robe. “Just look at this country. It’s gone backwards for 20 years. There’s no diesel, gasoline, electricity. Life is just too expensive.”
The Egyptian army, half a million strong and financed byWashington since it backed a peace treaty with Israel threedecades ago, says it has deployed to protect key installations.
Among these is the Suez Canal. Cities along the water way vital to global trade are bastions of anti-government sentiment. A bomb killed a protester in Port Said on Friday. A police general was gunned down in Sinai, close to the Israeli border.
Observers note similarities with protests in Turkey this month, where an Islamist prime minister with a strong electoral mandate has been confronted in the streets by angry secularists.
For many Egyptians, though, all the turmoil that has followed the Arab Spring has just made life harder. Standing by his lonely barrow at an eerily quiet downtown Cairo street market, 23-year-old Zeeka was afraid more violence was coming.
“We’re not for one side or the other,” he said. “What’s happening now in Egypt is shameful. There is no work, thugs are everywhere … I won’t go out to any protest.
“It’s nothing to do with me. I’m the tomato guy.
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