Egypt is braced for a day of rival rallies and potential street clashes as Islamists condemned military leaders’ call for huge pro-army demonstrations.
Political allies of Egypt’s military have lined up behind its call for a major turnout to show support for the country’s senior general, pushing toward a collision with Islamist opponents demanding the return of the nation’s ousted president.
There is widespread uncertainty over the army’s intentions, and concern that the military is whipping up a dangerous populist fervour.
General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who ousted Egypt’s elected president Mohammed Morsi on July 3, took many by surprise when he announced this week that he wanted people to take to the streets in large numbers today to give him a popular mandate to take the necessary measures against “violence and terrorism”.
Gen el-Sissi’s call was widely interpreted as a prelude to a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which Mr Morsi hails, and other Islamists who have been camped out for about a month at sit-ins in Cairo and elsewhere calling for Mr Morsi’s reinstatement.
That has hiked fears of a violent confrontation as Islamists also plan pro-Morsi rallies on Friday.
Islamists claim Gen el-Sissi’s call signals a plan to crush what they insist are peaceful protests. The spiritual leader of the Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, hiked up his rhetoric against Gen el-Sissi, saying ousting Mr Morsi was a worse crime than if the general had destroyed the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site – an attempt to fire up the religious fervour in the pro-Morsi camp ahead of the rallies.
On the other side, state TV and pro-military private networks were doing their part to back Gen el-Sissi. They announced that a popular TV series shown during the holy month of Ramadan will not be aired today to ensure that large numbers go out on to the streets. Some of them were airing patriotic songs.
Military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Mohammed Ali said Gen el-Sissi’s call was “not a threat to any specific political group” and added that the military respects peaceful protests, but he said any violence or terrorism will be “dealt with decisively and with force” – signalling a likely tough approach on any sign of violence, which Islamists’ opponents have largely blamed on the pro-Morsi camp.
He said a national reconciliation conference and a system of transitional justice, called for by interim military-backed president Adly Mansour, are the only way out of Egypt’s stand-off.
The military dropped leaflets on Morsi supporters outside the Rabaah al-Adawiya Mosque, trying to reassure them about their safety.
“We are not against you so don’t be against us. Don’t raise your weapons in the face of your brothers, don’t destroy, don’t burn, and let us all be together against killing, violence and terrorism,” the leaflets said.
Clashes have frequently erupted between Morsi protesters and authorities or Morsi opponents. At the same time, attacks by Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula have surged. More than 180 people have been killed since Mr Morsi’s fall.
Two border guards – an officer and a soldier – were killed and three others wounded yesterday when suspected militants fired rockets at their checkpoint in the Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweyid town, a stronghold of radicals.
The Obama administration gave Gen el-Sissi a major boost on the eve of the rallies.
It is telling US politicians it will not declare Mr Morsi’s overthrow a coup, which allows the United States to continue providing 1.5 billion dollars in annual military and economic aid.
But the White House said it was “concerned by any rhetoric that inflames tensions and could possibly lead to violence” and urged Egyptian security forces to exercise “maximum restraint”.
Islamists, meanwhile, lashed out at the military as they geared up for their own rallies.
A prominent pro-Brotherhood cleric, the Qatar-based Sheik Youssef el-Qaradawi, called on soldiers and officers in the military “not to listen to el-Sissi’s commands ... don’t kill your brother”.
In a speech aired on Al-Jazeera’s Egypt affiliate, he called Gen el-Sissi’s message “an incitement to divide the Egyptian people” by labelling some as terrorists.
Mr Badie denounced Gen el-Sissi as a “traitor” and urged him to repent.
Meanwhile, the UN chief urged Egyptian authorities to free Mr Morsi and other members of the Muslim Brotherhood or “have their cases reviewed transparently without delay”.
Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called on “all sides to act with maximum restraint”, and urged “the interim authorities to end arbitrary arrests and other reported forms of harassment”.