CAIRO — More than 22 million Egyptians have signed a petition calling for the country’s Islamist president to step down, the youth group leading the signature campaign said Saturday on the eve of mass protests aimed at forcing Mohammed Morsi from office.
The planned demonstrations, which could plunge Egypt once again into a dangerous round of civil unrest, reflect the growing polarization of the nation since Morsi took power, with the president and his Islamist allies in one camp and seculars, liberals, moderate Muslims, and Christians on the other.
Already, clashes across a string of cities north of Cairo during the past week have left at least seven people dead, including an American, and hundreds injured, and there are fears that Sunday’s protests will turn violent and quickly spiral out of control.
On Saturday, Morsi supporters at a Cairo sit-in did military-style fitness drills, with some wearing homemade body armor and construction helmets and carrying sticks. They said they had no intention of attacking opposition protesters, and would only act in self-defense or to protect the presidential palace.
The Tamarod, or Rebel, youth movement said its petition is evidence of the widespread dissatisfaction with Morsi’s administration, and has used the signature drive as the focal point of its call for millions of people to take to the streets Sunday to demand the president’s ouster.
Mahmoud Badr, a Tamarod leader, told reporters Saturday a total of 22,134,460 Egyptians have signed. He did not say whether there had been an independent audit of the signatures.
Morsi’s supporters, who have long doubted the validity and authenticity of the collected signatures, expressed skepticism about the final count.
‘‘How do we trust the petitions?’’ asked Brotherhood member Ahmed Seif Islam Hassan al-Banna. ‘‘Who guarantees that those who signed were not paid to sign?’’
The American college student killed Friday during anti-government violence in Egypt was in the country on an internship to teach English to young children while also improving his Arabic skills, family members said.
Andrew D. Pochter, 21, a student at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, was killed in Alexandria inclashes between supporters and opponents of Morsi, the college said. Security officials in Egypt said he was fatally stabbed near headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been set on fire.
Pochter of Chevy Chase, Md., was to enter his junior year at Kenyon in the fall. Heworked as an intern at Amideast, a nonprofit. Pochter’s family said in a statement that he planned to return to the Middle East for a semester abroad.“Our beloved 21-year-old son and brother Andrew Driscoll Pochter went to Alexandria for the summer, to teach English to 7- and 8-year-old Egyptian children and to improve his Arabic,” the statement said.
At Kenyon, Pochter was active in Hillel, the campus’s center for Jewish life, according to The Kenyon Collegian, the student newspaper. He went to high school at the Blue Ridge School, an all-boys boarding school outside Charlottesville, Va., where he won the foreign language award his senior year and played lacrosse.
On Saturday, Egyptian prosecutors ordered the arrest of several suspects in the killing, but gave no information on the number of suspects or their identities. US Embassy officials did not release any details about the circumstances of Pochter’s death, but the family, in its statement, said, “As we understand it, he was witnessing the protest as a bystander and was stabbed by a protester.”
“Andrew was a wonderful young man looking for new experiences in the world and finding ways to share his talents,” the family said.
Morsi sought to project a business-as-usual image Saturday, meeting with the defense and interior ministers to review preparations to protect protesters and vital state facilities during Sunday’s demonstrations.
Egypt has been roiled by political unrest in the two years since the uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak, but the round of protests set to kick off Sunday promises to be the largest and holds the potential to be the bloodiest yet.
In the past week alone, at least seven people have been killed in clashes between the president’s supporters and opponents in cities in the Nile Delta, while Friday protesters ransacked and torched as least five Brotherhood offices across the country.Material from The New York Times was used in this report.