Egyptians were preparing for the worst today as streets once again filled with protesters eager to oust President Mohammed Morsi and Islamists determined to keep him in power.
Households already beset by power cuts, fuel shortages and rising prices were stocking up on goods amid fears that the demonstrations could drag on for days or weeks and turn their neighbourhoods into battlegrounds.
Businesses near protest sites were closing until the crowds subside. Fences, barricades and walls were going up near homes and key buildings. And local communities were organising citizen patrols in case security breaks down.
Yet again, Mr Morsi’s palace in the upmarket Heliopolis area of Cairo is set to become the focus for popular frustration with his rule.
Some protests outside the capital have already turned deadly, and weapons – including firearms – have been circulating more openly than in the past.
“We’re worried like all Egyptians that a huge crowd will come, and it will get bloody,” said Magdy Ezz, owner of a menswear shop across from the walled complex, a blend of Middle Eastern and neoclassical architecture. Besides ordinary roll-down storm shutters, storefronts on the street are sealed off with steel panels.
“We just hope it will be peaceful. But it could be a second revolution,” he said. “If it lasts, we’ll have to keep the store closed. But it’s not like business has been booming here anyway, especially since the problems last year.”
Last winter, the area saw some of Cairo’s deadliest street violence since the 2011 uprising, with Islamists attacking a sit-in, anarchists throwing petrol bombs, and police savagely beating protesters.
Mr Morsi’s opponents aim to bring out massive crowds starting tomorrow, saying the country is fed up with Islamist misrule that has left the economy floundering and security in shambles.
They say they have collected 15 million signatures – around 2 million more than the number of voters who elected Mr Morsi – calling for him to step down, and they hope the turnout will push him to do just that.
Mr Morsi’s Islamist allies say they will defend the mandate of the country’s first freely elected president, some with their “souls and blood” if necessary, while hard-liners have vowed to “smash” the protests.
Yesterday, thousands of Morsi supporters launched a counter-demonstration, which some plan to continue as an open-ended sit-in at a mosque near the presidential palace – the endpoint of the main protest march two days later.
Both camps say they intend to be peaceful, but demonstrations could rapidly descend into violence – especially if the two sides meet.
Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group said five of its members have been killed in clashes with protesters in Nile Delta provinces over the past days. Yesterday, two people were killed in clashes in the port city of Alexandria and at least five Brotherhood offices were torched, while the nation’s highest religious authority, Al-Azhar, warned against “civil war”.
At the Brotherhood’s national headquarters in Cairo’s Muqattam district, workers added a final layer of mortar to a brick wall topped with grating to reinforce the main gate. A bank on the corner was completely boarded up.
Some fear protesters could descend on the neighborhood to attack the headquarters, as happened last spring when supporters and opponents of the president fought street battles that left 200 wounded.
“The police have to get this place secured. It’s their job and I’m sure they will,” said Hadi Saad, a designer who lives around the corner from the headquarters. “The demonstrations will be very big across the country, no matter if (Morsi) stays or goes, so we should be prepared here as well.”
Other neighbours said they did not expect a repeat of violence in the area, a hill overlooking the rest of the city. Only a handful of police patrolled the area ahead of the weekend protests, corralling a 100-car queue to the main avenue’s petrol station.
Engineer Hasan Farag said residents were “hoping for the best”. Some have begun to resent the Brotherhood’s presence, however, and a petition to force the offices out has been circulating.
“The neighborhood is divided – some don’t mind the headquarters being here, others do,” Mr Saad said.
Security has been tightened at the presidential palace in Heliopolis. Walls set up last year still block some traffic access, and curved concrete slabs designed to prevent climbing now protect the main gates.
Shipping containers also line much of the perimeter, and nearby apartment buildings have blocked off their parking lots and side streets with barbed wire. Yesterday, authorities built a new wall of concrete blocks to surround the complex.
Peter Soliman, a communications student who lives in the area, said most residents do not know what to expect.
“Of course, parents are worried about their children going out to demonstrate by the palace, especially if the Brotherhood shows up,” he said. “People fear things will turn bloody and divide the country.”
Other Heliopolis residents and protest organisers say neighbourhood watch groups are already being formed.
In the city centre, concrete walls continue to block off the Interior Ministry and southern access routes to Tahrir Square, epicentre of the uprising which overthrew long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Protesters began gathering at the square ahead of the weekend, saying they plan to dig in for a protracted conflict.
The nearby Semiramis Hotel is taking no chances, even though Tahrir is expected to be a sideshow compared with tomorrow’s march to the palace. The site of repeated clashes between stone-throwing youths and riot police this past year, the luxury hotel has just finished fortifying itself with a spiked metal fence topped with razor-sharp blades.
To the south, in the leafy Garden City subur – an area that has sometimes seen spillover violence from Tahrir – some residents were securing their homes.
Metalworker Sameh Haddad used an arc welder to put the final touches to an apartment building’s new wrought-iron gate before hurrying to other appointments. “For once, business has been great,” he said.