100,000 back Egyptian leader Morsi
More than 100,000 supporters of Egypt's Islamist president have staged a show of force in Cairo 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".
The mass gathering was ostensibly called by Islamists to denounce violence, but it took on the appearance of a war rally instead. Participants vowed in chants to protect president Mohammed Morsi against his opponents. Some who addressed the crowd spoke of smashing opposition protests on June 30, the anniversary of Mr Morsi's assumption of power.
"We want to stress that we will protect the legitimacy with our blood and souls," said Mohammed el-Beltagy, a senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic group from which Mr Morsi hails.
Most participants were bussed 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 Mr Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and posters of the president. Brotherhood members in red helmets and carrying white plastic sticks manned makeshift checkpoints, searching bags and checking IDs as demonstrators streamed into the venue.
The 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 Mr 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 constant political unrest and a sinking economy. Mr Morsi's opponents say he and his Brotherhood have been systematically amassing power, excluding liberals, secular groups and even ultra-conservative 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 say the opposition, having lost elections, is trying to impose its will through street protests.
Opposition leaders were not impressed by the turnout. "Those 100,000 are not going to scare the people. We have collected petitions of 15 million people," said Mahmoud Badr, one of the main organisers of the June 30 protests. "They brought people from the provinces that stretch from Cairo to (the southern city of) Aswan. This is their top capacity."