CAIRO – With the military beefing up security, tens of thousands took to the streets Friday in a determined push for the return to power of Egypt’s ousted Islamist leader, while Mohammed Morsi’s opponents staged rival rallies, raising fears of a fresh round of clashes.
The army warned it wouldn’t tolerate any violence and sent fighter jets screaming over the capital and helicopters hovering over the marches.
Publicizing their protests for days, Morsi’s supporters vowed Friday would be decisive in their campaign to try to reverse the military coup that removed the country’s first democratically elected president after a year in office, following massive protests against him.
Unlike other demonstrations held in the evening after breaking the daylong Ramadan fast, the pro-Morsi rallies took place throughout the day. Organized by the ousted president’s Muslim Brotherhood party and dubbed “Breaking the Coup,” they included marches in Cairo’s streets, outside military installations and in other cities, including Alexandria and several Nile Delta provinces.
The rival gatherings came just days after a new interim Cabinet was sworn in that includes women, Christians and members of a liberal coalition opposed to Morsi, but no Islamists.
The Muslim Brotherhood has refused to take part in talks with the interim leadership.
The country has been deeply polarized since the ouster of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, following massive rallies. The divisions only deepened over the July 3 military coup supported by millions who accused Morsi of abusing his power and giving too much influence to his Muslim Brotherhood group.
Friday’s rallies coincided with the 10th day of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which Egyptians celebrate as the day their armed forces crossed the Suez Canal in the 1973 war with Israel. The surprise assault led to the return of the Sinai Peninsula, which had been occupied by Israel.
The occasion was a chance for the rival camps to focus on the military, which was instrumental in removing Morsi. At pro-Morsi gatherings, protesters extolled the virtue of the armed forces but drew a distinction with its leadership, which they accused of treason for turning against Morsi.
Waving Egyptian flags and pictures of the ousted leader, they chanted slogans against army chief Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi. “El-Sissi is a traitor!” they shouted. “Morsi is our president!”
Organizers played Morsi’s old speeches, referring to him as the nation’s leader and the supreme commander of the armed forces.
“The problems of the first years could have been solved by dialogue, but the opposition always refused,” said 28-year-old Osama Youssef, who traveled to Cairo from the eastern province of Sharqiya to show his support for Morsi. “The opposition didn’t succeed in getting power through constitutional measures, so it chose to take power by staging a military coup.”
Sayed el-Banna, a 45-year-old Brotherhood member who came to Cairo from the Delta province of al-Sharqia, said it was important to have many people in the streets.
“It is to send a message to those in the army who disagree with el-Sissi to stand with us and support us,” he said.
Meanwhile, several thousand anti-Morsi protesters gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and outside two presidential palaces to celebrate their gains. “The people and the army and the police together against terrorism,” declared a banner stung across a stage set up at the presidential palace.
Army choppers flying overhead dropped gift coupons and Egyptian flags on the gathering in Tahrir Square and a police choir performed nationalist songs in a party that lasted late into the night.
The presence in the streets of the rival sides had raised fears of clashes, and military and police were deployed heavily in areas where the two crowds might collide.
In one incident, near the presidential palace, security forces lobbed tear gas at an approaching march by Morsi supporters to prevent it from reaching an area where anti-Morsi demonstrators were holding their own rally.
Only minor incidents of violence were reported in the capital. Pro-Morsi supporters and opponents shouted at one another after Friday prayers in the main Al-Azhar Mosque and police detained six Islamist protesters for throwing rocks. Separately, a man was stabbed and hospitalized when a crowd of the deposed president’s supporters questioned his identity and found out he was a policeman in civilian clothing.
In the Sinai peninsula, where militants long active in the area have intensified their attacks against security forces following Morsi’s ouster, two civilians were killed when armed militants fired rockets at a military checkpoint, but hit a residence nearby.
In a clear attempt to widen their base of support, Brotherhood members appealed to people join their rally, insisting the coup was about to be reversed.
“To those hesitating, wake up, the time for the end of the coup is nearing,” senior Brotherhood leader Essam el-Erian wrote in a posting on his Facebook page.
Yasser Meshren, a Brotherhood supporter who came to Cairo from the southern province of Bani Sueif, accused the military of tricking the people by overseeing the elections only to then remove Morsi, disband the country’s interim parliament and suspend the constitution, which was approved in a referendum.
“You stole my mother and my sister’s voice,” Meshren said of the military leadership.
During their marches, the protesters made a concerted effort to distinguish between the leaders of the military and the troops. At one point, a group of pro-Morsi supporters approached a military checkpoint offering them flowers.
Police and military troops and armored vehicles were deployed heavily in Cairo around security and military installations, court houses, and the capital’s entrances.
Fighter jets flew over the protesters and military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali issued a stern warning on Facebook, telling civilians not to pose as military personnel or approach military installations or troops, saying anyone doing so risked death.
The military also dropped flyers warning against violence as a crowd of some 400 pro-Morsi protesters marched through northern Sinai’s main city of el-Arish. The flyers urged people to protect the Sinai Peninsula from “terrorists” and provided two numbers for people to call to report suspicious behavior.
Meanwhile, the Brotherhood said seven leaders of its parent group, including the former speaker of the parliament and an ultraconservative Salafi preacher, were transported to a heavily guarded prison, a move the group said was illegal because the men have not yet been charged. They have been accused, among other things, of inciting violence.
The ousted president, who has been replaced by interim leader Adly Mansour, has been held incommunicado at an undisclosed military facility since his ouster. He has not been charged with any crimes.
The Brotherhood’s TV channel has been taken off the air along with other Islamic channels seen as sympathetic to the group. Al-Jazeera’s Egypt affiliate was raided by security forces, and on Friday, the channel’s signal, along with its flagship English and Arabic news channels, were intermittently interrupted. The reasons for the disruptions were not clear.
Pro-Morsi protester Mostafa Fathi, a 33-year-old accountant, said he viewed Morsi’s ouster and the closure of the TV channels as signs the country was targeting Islamists, as it did during Mubarak’s near three-decade-long rule.
“We don’t want to go back to a police state or a state of injustice.”