Egypt tense ahead of large protests

Some fear nation nearing civil war

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CAIRO -- Organizers of a mass protest against Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi claimed Saturday that more than 22 million people have signed their petition demanding the Islamist leader step down, asserting that the tally was a reflection of how much the public has turned against his rule.

The announcement adds to a sense of foreboding on the eve of opposition-led mass demonstrations that many fear could turn deadly and quickly spin out of control, dragging the country into a dangerous round of political violence.

The demonstrations planned for today reflect the growing polarization of the nation since Mr. Morsi took power, with the president and his Islamist allies in one camp and seculars, liberals, moderate Muslims and Christians on the other.

There is a sense among opponents and supporters of Mr. Morsi that today's rally is a make-or-break day. The opposition feels empowered by the petition, known as Tamarod, or Rebel, but it offered no proof regarding the figures. If verified, it would mean that nearly double the number of people who voted for Mr. Morsi a year ago are now calling for him to step down.

Mr. Morsi's supporters, on the other hand, question the petitions, saying his opponents are led by members of the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak who are trying to orchestrate a comeback and are instigating violence.

Already, clashes across a string of cities north of Cairo over the past week have left eight people dead, including an American and a 14-year-old, and hundreds injured.

Clashes broke out outside offices of the Muslim Brotherhood and its party in at least five different governorates, and rival protests turned into violent confrontations.

Thousands are still taking part in rival sit-ins, in place since Friday in Tahrir Square for opponents and in an east Cairo suburb, Nasr City, for supporters of Mr. Morsi.

Highlighting the nervousness over today's protests, President Barack Obama said the U.S. is working to ensure its embassy and diplomats in Egypt are safe after a 21-year old American was killed in Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city.

Andrew Pochter, a student at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, had been in Egypt for about a month. Egyptian security officials said Saturday that Mr. Pochter was stabbed in the chest, near his heart, late Friday during clashes between supporters and opponents of Mr.Morsi. He was taken to a nearby military hospital where he was pronounced dead shortly afterward.

Mr. Pochter's family said he had gone to Egypt to teach English to young children, while also working to improve his Arabic skills.

Adding to the tension, eight lawmakers from the country's interim legislature announced their resignation Saturday to protest Mr. Morsi's policies. The 270-seat chamber was elected early last year by less than 10 percent of Egypt's eligible voters, and is dominated by Islamists who support Mr. Morsi.

With a sense of doom hanging over the country, Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on June 23 gave the president and his opponents a week to reach a compromise and warned that the military would intervene to prevent the nation from entering a "dark tunnel."

Mr. Morsi had called for national reconciliation talks but offered no specifics. Opposition leaders dismissed the call as cosmetics.

Exchange of accusations was running high Saturday, in a rivalry that has increasingly been portrayed by Mr. Morsi supporters as an attack on Islamists in power.

In a statement ahead of the protests, opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei said a massive turnout is expected today. He called on Mr. Morsi to listen to the masses and accept early elections.

On Saturday, Mr. Morsi met with the defense and interior ministers to review preparations to protect the protesters and vital state facilities during today's demonstrations.

The focus of today's protests is Mr. Morsi's Ittihadiya palace in Cairo. As a precaution, the president and his family are reported to have moved into the Cairo headquarters of the Republican Guard, the branch of the army tasked with protecting the president and presidential palaces.

With expectations of violence running high, the military has dispatched troops backed by armored personnel carriers to reinforce military bases on the outskirts of cities expected to be flashpoints.

Many Egyptians fear the new round of unrest could trigger a collapse in law and order similar to the one that occurred during the 2011 revolt. Already, some residents have increased security around their homes, erecting metal fences and installing barbed wire. Some residents west of the city are reporting gunmen showing up to demand protection money or risk being robbed.

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