More than 100,000 supporters of Egypt’s Islamist president staged a show of force Friday ahead of massive protests later this month by the opposition, chanting “Islamic revolution!” and warning of a new and bloody bout of turmoil.
Adding to the combustible mix, comments by the U.S. ambassador that were interpreted as critical of the opposition’s planned protests sparked outrage, with one activist telling the diplomat to “shut up and mind your own business.”
Friday’s mass gathering ostensibly was called by Islamists to denounce violence, but it took on the appearance of a war rally instead. Participants, many of them bearded and wearing robes or green bandannas, vowed in chants to protect President Mohammed Morsi against his opponents. Some who addressed the crowd spoke of smashing opposition protesters June 30, the anniversary of Morsi’s assumption of power.
“We want to stress that we will protect the legitimacy with our blood and souls,” declared Mohammed el-Beltagy, a senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic group from which Morsi hails.
Most participants were bused in from elsewhere in the Egyptian capital or from far-flung provinces. They waved Egypt’s red, white and black flag as well as the green banner of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and posters of the president. Many raised their fists in the air.
Brotherhood members in red helmets and carrying white plastic sticks manned makeshift checkpoints, searching bags and checking IDs as demonstrators streamed into the venue.
Friday’s rally was the latest evidence of the schism that has torn Egypt apart in the more than two years since autocrat Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising. That division has plunged the country into deadly street battles and taken on a clear religious character after Morsi took office a year ago as the nation’s first freely elected leader. In the year since, Egypt has been divided into two camps, with the president and his Islamist backers in one, and secular, liberal Egyptians, moderate Muslims, women and minority Christians in the other.
The past year also has been marred by constant political unrest and a sinking economy. Morsi’s opponents charge that he and his Brotherhood have been systematically amassing power, excluding liberals, secular groups and even ultraconservative Salafi Muslims. A persistent security vacuum and political turmoil have scared away foreign investors and tourists. Egypt’s already battered economy has continued to slide, draining foreign currency reserves and resulting in worsening fuel shortages and electricity cuts, along with increasing unemployment.
The president’s supporters charge that the opposition, having lost elections, is trying to impose its will through street protests.