CAIRO: Egyptian security forces will besiege two sit-ins by supporters of the country’s ousted president within 24 hours, police officials said Sunday, setting up a possible confrontation between the military-backed government and the thousands gathered there.
One police official suggested action against the sit-in protests by supporters of ousted President Mohammad Morsi could begin as early as daybreak Monday. Officials, who spoke anonymously in line with regulations, told the Associated Press they are also preparing for possible clashes that might erupt in reaction to the cordons they will set up barring anyone from entering.
Morsi’s supporters have said they will not leave the sit-ins until the president, ousted in a popularly supported coup July 3, is reinstated.
Defying the warning, they again rallied Sunday to demand Morsi’s reinstatement and condemn the army.
“Sisi is a traitor, Sisi is a killer,” shouted protesters who took part in a march of hundreds of women in central Cairo, referring to army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi who was behind Morsi’s overthrow.
In east Cairo, a convoy of cars plastered with pictures of Morsi flooded the streets of a neighborhood, with drivers blaring their car horns in a show of support for the deposed president.
Morsi loyalists, led by his Muslim Brotherhood movement, have kept in place the huge protest camps in the capital and have also staged almost daily demonstrations around the country.
Sunday’s rallies – which came after the Anti-Coup Alliance of Morsi supporters announced 10 marches around the capital – came as Al-Azhar – Sunni’s highest seat of learning – called for political reconciliation talks.
Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayyeb is to launch contacts with political factions Monday and hopes to organize reconciliation talks later this week, state media reported.
“Al-Azhar has been studying all the proposals for reconciliation put forward by political and intellectual figures ... to come up with a compromise formula for all Egyptians,” Tayyeb’s adviser, Mahmoud Azab, told state-owned daily Al-Ahram.
But the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to reject an invitation for dialogue with Tayyeb as he had sat alongside Sisi when the army chief announced the Islamist president’s overthrow.
Efforts by the international community to end the standoff and find a peaceful resolution to the crisis failed. Egypt’s prime minister warned just ahead of the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday that ended Sunday that the government’s decision to clear the sit-ins was “irreversible.”
Egypt’s new leadership says that the sit-ins and protests have frightened residents of Cairo, sparked deadly violence and disrupted traffic in the capital. Leaders of the sit-in say their protests have been peaceful and blame security forces and “thugs” for violence.
The Arab world’s most populous country is readying itself for more potential bloodshed. Already more than 250 people have been killed in violence since Morsi’s ouster.
Mass rallies two weeks ago called by Sisi showed that a large segment of Egypt’s population backs action by the armed forces.
The Interior Ministry had said earlier it would not clamp down on the protesters but will take gradual measures, which include the cordons. Other measures suggested include the use of water cannons and tear gas to minimize casualties.
“There will be a series of gradual steps. We will announce every step along the way,” a ministry official said.
Once the siege begins, the protesters will be “surrounded” and will be given “several warnings” to leave, another security official said, adding that the operation would last “two to three days.”The protesters, expecting an imminent security push to clear them out, have begun fortifying their positions.
At Egypt’s main protest camp in eastern Cairo, vendors say they have sold hundreds of gas masks, goggles and gloves to protesters readying themselves for police tear gas. A few meters away from the vendors, three waist-high cement and wooden barriers have been constructed by protesters to keep armored vehicles from crushing the sit-in.
The protests include many women and children. Organizations like UNICEF have cautioned against what they say is the deliberate use of children in Egypt who are “put at risk as potential witnesses to or victims of violence.”
The Muslim Brotherhood group says it cannot control whether families choose to stay camped out.
Some of the Islamist group’s top leaders have used the sit-ins as a cover to avoid arrest. Others have already been detained and face charges of inciting violence. Morsi has been held at undisclosed locations since his ouster and is facing a criminal investigation.
Tensions between Muslims and Christians south of Cairo have been especially high since the Islamist president’s ouster. On Sunday, 15 people were wounded when a Muslim woman tried to stop a Christian neighbor from building a speed bump in front of her home. Officials say both families started fighting and assailants tossed gasoline bombs into four Christian homes and a local church.