CAIRO (AP) — Thousands of supporters and opponents of Egypt's embattled Islamist president held rival sit-ins in separate parts of Cairo Saturday on the eve of opposition-led mass protests aimed at forcing Mohammed Morsi from power.
The demonstrations follow days of deadly clashes in a string of cities across the country that have left at least seven people dead, including an American, and hundreds injured. The violence — and wide expectation of more to come Sunday during rallies that the opposition says will bring millions into the streets — has fed an impending sense of doom in the country.
Egypt has been roiled by political unrest in the two years since uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak, but the upcoming round of protests starting Sunday promises to be the largest and perhaps the bloodiest. The turmoil has compounded the country's social and economic woes, with crime surging, unemployment high and with shortages of basic items not uncommon.
Cairo, which saw large pro- and anti-Morsi rallies on Friday, was uncharacteristically quiet Saturday despite the sit-ins as the city braced for more potentially violent opposition protests. Many residents are thought to be staying home, while some left for safer locations elsewhere in the country to avoid possible violence.
For several days, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that helped propel Morsi to power, and the president's opponents have clashed in cities in the Nile Delta, while on Friday as least five Brotherhood offices across the country were ransacked and torched.
That has all come in the buildup toward Sunday — the anniversary of Morsi's inauguration as Egypt's first freely elected leader — when opposition groups promise massive demonstrations to force the Egyptian leader from office. The June 30 protesters have vowed to remain peaceful, while the military said it would intervene if violence breaks out.
With expectations of violence running high, the military has dispatched troops backed by armored personnel carriers to reinforce military bases on the outskirts of cities expected to be flashpoints. In Cairo, the additional forces were deployed to military facilities in the suburbs and outlying districts. Army troops are also moving to reinforce police guarding the city's prisons to prevent a repeat of the nearly half dozen jail breaks during the chaos of the 2011 uprising.
Morsi's backers on Friday staged their second mass rally in as many weeks in a Cairo suburb where they said they would stage an indefinite sit-in to counter the protests planned by the opposition outside the nearby presidential palace.
Smaller numbers of Morsi opponents are staging a sit-in in central Cairo's Tahrir square, the epicenter of the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak, as well as outside Morsi's palace across town. The president has temporarily moved to another palace.
Hard-line Islamists loyal to Morsi have repeatedly vowed to "smash" the protesters, arguing that they were a front for Mubarak loyalists determined to undermine Morsi's rule. They also say that Morsi is a freely elected president who must serve out his four-year term before he can be replaced in an election.
The opposition counters by saying Morsi has lost his legitimacy through a series of missteps and authoritarian policies and insist that early presidential elections must be held within six months of his ouster.
Many Egyptians fear the new round of unrest could trigger a collapse in law and order similar to the one that occurred during the 2011 revolt. Already, residents in some of the residential compounds and neighborhoods to the west of the city are reporting gunmen showing up to demand protection money or risk being robbed.
The police, who have yet to fully take back the streets after they disappeared in unclear circumstances in 2011, have stepped up patrols on the outskirts of the city, ostensibly to prevent weapons and ammunition from coming into the city to be used in the case of an outbreak of violence. The army is advertising hotlines for civilians to call if they run into trouble.