Egypt braces for a decisive showdown in the streets

Both supporters and opponents of President Mohamed Morsi agree that he faces a defining moment as streets fill with protesters calling for his resignation. 

Virginie Nguyen Hoang/AP
Women attend a rally to support Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in Nasr City, a district in Cairo, Sunday. Thousands of opponents and supporters of Egypt's Islamist president began massing in city squares in competing rallies Sunday, gearing up for a day of massive nationwide protests that many fear could turn deadly as the opposition seeks to push out Mr. Morsi.

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets in the capital and around the country to call on their first freely elected president to resign, a move that many on both sides of the stark political divide feel could be decisive for Egypt's future.

Protesters at the presidential palace in the capital chanted "Leave! Leave!" and carried signs against the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization of which President Mohamed Morsi is a former leader. They hoped to force Mr. Morsi to leave power just as they toppled former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. 

They say Morsi, who took office one year ago after winning an election by a razor-thin margin, has acted undemocratically and sought to increase his power while failing to solve the mounting crises in Egypt. Many have been pushed to the street by growing anger over electricity cuts, fuel shortages, food price increases, and a lack of security.

Yet the president's supporters – and thousands of them have gathered at a mosque in Cairo since Friday to counter-protest – say the demonstrations against the president are supported by members of the former regime, who are attempting to oust a democratically elected president against the will of the people. They accuse the opposition of encouraging violence and hoping for a coup. 

One side sees the protests as Egypt's last chance to save a transition that had gone badly awry, while the other side sees them as a threat to Egypt's young democracy. 

"This is our last chance to rescue Egypt," says Mohamed Fouad, a protester at the presidential palace who holds a sign that says "get out!"

Some fear the protests may cause the bitter rift between the president's supporters and opponents to erupt into wider violence. That divide has been growing since the president granted himself immunity from the judiciary in November and used the power to push to a vote a new constitution written by a committee whose majority were Islamists. 

A sheikh at Al Azhar, the seat of Sunni Muslim learning, last week warned about a slide into civil war. And the military, which stepped in to take control when Mr. Mubarak was ousted in 2011, warned that it will not stand by if chaos engulfs the nation.

The Sunday headline in opposition daily Shorouq captured the tension hanging over Cairo: “Egypt awaits her fate,” it read.

The violence has already begun in the Nile Delta region, where several people have died in recent days in clashes between pro-and anti-Morsi protesters. One of them was 21-year-old Andrew Pochter, an American who was working as an intern at a US development organization, teaching English to students. He was stabbed to death, apparently while observing a protest in Alexandria Friday. Several local offices of the Muslim Brotherhood have been torched in the Delta. Videos of protests there appear to show some Morsi opponents carrying guns and knives.

At the demonstration in support of Morsi in Cairo, men wearing helmets and carrying sticks and shields say they would use them to defend themselves if attacked. 

"We cannot allow thugs and corrupt members of the former regime to oust Egypt's democratically elected leader," says Said Ahmed, one of the helmet-clad defense crew. "The ballot box has spoken. Will they do this to every president if they are not happy with everything he does? This is not democracy."

Looking for a new leader

But at the presidential palace, protesters say Morsi has betrayed those who voted for him. Samia Awad, a mother who came to the protest with her children, says she voted for Morsi last year but now is deeply disappointed. "He hasn't done anything for Egypt. Everything is worse," she says. "We want a leader who will offer us a life, who will move the country forward. This doesn't mean we will oust a new president every year. If anyone comes and does something for the country, we will support him. We want security. We don't want this chaos we are living in."

Many protesters say they feel Morsi is working for the benefit of the Muslim Brotherhood, and not in the interests of the people. Mostafa el-Ghobashy says he wants Morsi to step down and a presidential council to take his place. He also wants a new constitution to be written. Concessions by Morsi won't make him happy, he says. "The time for that had passed. We asked for that many times, and he didn't answer. He didn't listen to the people."

Some palace protesters brought up the violence in December, when the Brotherhood sent its members to disperse opposition protests at the presidential palace and eleven people were killed in the ensuing clashes. 

Cairo braces for clashes

In the days leading up to Sunday, apprehension gripped the Egyptian capital as residents worried about what the protests would bring. Some Cairo residents stocked up on food, bottled water, and cash. Some stores ran out of supplies, and banks lowered daily ATM withdrawal limits. Away from the protests Sunday, Cairo's streets, normally full of traffic, noise, and pedestrians, were almost deserted, and eerily quiet. The American embassy issued a travel warning for Egypt and announced it would be closed Sunday and Monday.

Leaders of the petition drive that called for today's anti-Morsi protests, called Tamarod, or “Rebel,” say they gathered 22 million signatures asking the president to resign. That number cannot be verified. 

What is clear is in the year since he was elected, Morsi has alienated many who voted for him. Some are angry at what they call autocratic moves and attempts to consolidate power while refusing to give concessions to the opposition. And Egypt's economic woes have mounted, putting financial pressure on citizens, as the government has failed to conclude a crucial loan deal with the International Monetary Fund.

The president's supporters note that he has faced many hurdles – he has struggled to control the security forces, and they say he faces a judiciary and media determined to thwart his moves, while the political opposition refuses dialogue.

But Morsi is not the only one facing opposition. Anti-American sentiment has also grown in Egypt as many of Morsi's opponents view the United States as unquestioningly supporting Morsi or engaging in a conspiracy to bring him to power. At the palace, protesters carried signs demanding the expulsion of the American ambassador, Anne Patterson. 

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