CAIRO — 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 US 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 was ostensibly 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 bandanas, vowed in chants to protect President Mohammed Morsi against his opponents. Some who addressed the crowd spoke of smashing opposition protesters on June 30, the anniversary of Morsi’s assumption of power.
“We will protect the legitimacy with our blood and souls,” declared Mohammed el-Beltagy, a senior leader of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
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 the Muslim Brotherhood and posters of the president.
Brotherhood members in red helmets carrying white plastic sticks manned makeshift checkpoints, searching bags and checking IDs as demonstrators streamed in.
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 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 has also been marred by 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 battered economy has continued to slide, draining foreign currency reserves and worsening fuel shortages and electricity cuts.