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CAIRO, Jun 28 2013 (IPS) - Islamist President Mohamed Morsi’s first turbulent year in office will end with two massive rallies in Cairo, both expected to draw hundreds of thousands: one by his mostly Islamist supporters and another by secular opposition forces who demand he step down.
For the last three months, Cairo has been bracing for massive opposition demonstrations to demand the President’s resignation and early elections. Protest calls have been spearheaded by Egypt’s anti-Morsi Tamarrud (‘Rebel’) signature drive, which claims to have gathered 15 million citizens’ endorsements in support of its demands.
Opposition forces demanding Morsi’s ouster under Egypt’s National Salvation Front (NSF) the opposition umbrella group, argue that Morsi has failed during his one year in office to improve the lives of Egyptians or realise popular demands emanating from Egypt’s 2011 revolution.
Endorsed by almost all of Egypt’s non-Islamist political groups – and heavily promoted on much of Egypt’s anti-Islamist privately-owned media – Sunday’s demonstrations are expected to witness a massive turnout.
“On Jun. 30 we will converge in the millions on Tahrir Square and the presidential palace in Cairo, where we will remain until Morsi steps down,” Mahmoud Badr, founder and leading member of the ‘Rebel’ campaign told IPS.
Egypt’s first-ever freely elected head of state, however, will not be facing his many opponents alone on Sunday. On Friday (Jun. 28), Morsi’s supporters began to arrive in the thousands in Cairo’s Nasr City district in a show of support for the embattled president and his “democratic legitimacy.”
Morsi narrowly defeated Ahmed Shafiq, ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, in 2012 presidential polls that were widely regarded as free and fair. Morsi’s supporters, led by the Muslim Brotherhood group from whose ranks he hails, say that calls for Morsi’s departure are undemocratic, and accuse Egypt’s secular opposition of failing to respect the results of the ballot box.
Friday’s planned pro-Morsi demonstrations, which have been endorsed by most Islamist parties and groups, will be the second such show of strength within one week. Last Friday (Jun. 21) saw hundreds of thousands converge on the same location both to express support for the president and to “say no to violence.”
With both sides now vowing to stage open-ended sit-ins, the tense standoff has prompted widespread fears of violence between the two rival camps. This week has already seen clashes in several Egyptian provinces – including Daqahliya, Sharqiya and Zagazig – between the president’s supporters and opponents, which have left at least three people dead and scores injured.
On Thursday (Jun. 27) Hasan Shefai, senior advisor to the Grand Sheikh of Egypt’s Al-Azhar (the highest seat of learning in the Sunni-Muslim world), warned of the danger of violent confrontations nationwide.
He went on to urge both of Egypt’s political camps to “show restraint or else risk civil war.”
In a statement issued the same day, Al-Azhar called for the formation of a “national reconciliation council” – consisting of representatives of all political currents – tasked with resolving the political crisis through dialogue.
Earlier in the week, defence minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi issued similar calls for reconciliation, warning that Egypt’s armed forces would not allow the country to “fall into a dark tunnel of civil unrest and killing, sectarianism and the collapse of state institutions.”
His comments prompted a flurry of media speculation about the possible return of the military to Egypt’s domestic political arena in the event that Sunday’s planned protests forced Morsi to relinquish authority.
A presidential spokesman, however, quickly dismissed the idea, stressing that the military’s role was merely to protect Egypt’s borders and secure vital state institutions.
“There is a president ruling the country democratically, through democratic elections,” he said. “There is no political role for the army.”
He added: “President Morsi represents the commander-in-chief of the military; anything that happens within the army is coordinated through him.”
Since Tuesday (Jun. 25), military forces have been deploying nationwide in anticipation of the upcoming wave of demonstrations.
Anti-Morsi protesters themselves appear divided on what role the military should play. On Wednesday, one group of anti-Morsi demonstrators in Tahrir Square waved banners bearing pro-army slogans while another chanted in unison, “No to military rule.”
From Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011 until Morsi’s assumption of the presidency a year ago, Egypt’s Supreme Military Council held executive authority. During its one-and-a-half-year stint in power, the military was frequently accused by activists and revolutionary groups of committing gross rights violations.
In a highly anticipated address to the nation on Wednesday night (Jun. 26), Morsi reiterated calls for “national reconciliation,” but otherwise barely mentioned the imminent rallies. In a bid to assuage his critics, he also announced the formation of a committee tasked with hearing opposition proposals for constitutional changes.
Opposition leaders, however, rejected Morsi’s overtures, describing them as “too late.”
“The opposition has been demanding constitutional change since last year,” said the ‘Rebel’ campaign’s Badr. “Morsi shouldn’t have waited to make this concession until people were hitting the streets to demand his departure.”
Badr went on to predict that, like Mubarak in his final days in power, Morsi would deliver “three more speeches” before announcing his decision to step down.
The opposition NSF likewise rejected the president’s proposition. “Morsi’s speech only deepens our resolve to press for early presidential elections in order to achieve the aims of the revolution,” it declared in a statement.
Morsi supporters, calling his democratic legitimacy a “red line”, have vowed to remain in the area indefinitely to protect the nearby presidential palace from anti-Morsi demonstrators on Sunday.
Thousands of opposition protesters, meanwhile, remain arrayed in Tahrir Square and outside the Egyptian Defence Ministry to demand Morsi’s ouster.
“This is a recipe for disaster; neither side is prepared to give way,” 52-year-old government employee Magdi Yusuf – who plans to keep his distance from both demonstrations – told IPS.
Echoing a fear common to most Cairo residents, he added, “Violence appears unavoidable at this point.”
In the coastal city Alexandria, clashes erupted on Friday afternoon between rival demonstrators, some reportedly armed with shotguns.
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