CAIRO — Supporters of deposed Islamist president Mohammed Morsi called for more mass demonstrations Tuesday in further defiance of a government ultimatum to dismantle their sprawling Cairo protest camps.
The ongoing standoff with the army-backed interim government, which has threatened to disperse the two Cairo sit-ins where thousands of Islamists have been camped out for over a month, has caused worry among the international community, which fears fresh bloodshed.
Since police issued last week an ultimatum to end the protests, Islamists have called for nationwide marches to demand the reinstatement of Morsi, Egypt's first democratically-elected civilian president, toppled and arrested by the military on July 3.
The Anti-Coup Alliance, which supports Morsi, called for a "million-man demonstration" as the judiciary said on Monday it was extending his detention for a further 15 days pending an investigation into his collaboration with Palestinian group Hamas.
Using the slogan "Together against the coup d'etat and the Zionists" for their rally, Morsi's backers are trying to strike a nationalist chord after an air raid in the Sinai on radical Islamist militants overnight Sunday, which the jihadists have blamed on Israel.
Israeli media says the Jewish state has been in close cooperation with Egypt over the threat from radical Islamist militants in the restive Sinai Peninsula.
Authorities have announced plans to clear pro-Morsi protesters from Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya and Nahda squares with "gradual steps," to persuade some to leave the squares peacefully before swooping on the hard core that remains.
But the number of protesters in the squares has not diminished.
At Rabaa, the bigger of the two rallies, dozens of volunteer guards manned makeshift barriers made of piles of bricks and stacks of sandbags.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the group from which Morsi hails, insist that their demonstrations are peaceful while the government and the press accuse demonstrators at Rabaa and Nahda of being "terrorists."
They say the protesters are hiding automatic weapons in the squares and using women and children as "human shields."
Clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators and security forces have killed more than 250 people since the end of June.
The government has struggled to come up with a clear strategy to end the crisis, its members split between those who want to take a hard line, with the backing of a significant part of the population, and those who, like the international community, prefer dialogue.
Police and army chiefs are ready to intervene, but the reticence of some top politicians, such as vice-president and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, has led them to take a more cautious approach.
Rabab al-Mahdi, professor of political science at the American University of Cairo said the demonstrations "are not sit-ins like any others."
Authorities "are dealing with the most organised political force in the country. They know that the cost will be higher than the dispersal of past protests," Mahdi said.
The Muslim Brotherhood, banned in 1954 and repressed by successive governments, won legislative and presidential elections in 2011 after the fall of former strongman Hosni Mubarak.
Now, the group is calling for the release of Morsi and several other top Brotherhood figures who were also detained by the military on July 3.
Prosecutors have also set an August 25 date for the trial of the Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie and his two deputies.
While Egypt's political transition, which is due to lead to elections in early 2014, has struggled to get off the ground, Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's highest seat of learning, has called for national reconciliation talks.
Al-Azhar's grand imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb said he had invited all sides in the crisis to negotiate a compromise, but the Brotherhood said it did not receive any invitation and categorically refuse to hold talks with the "illegitimate" authorities.
© AFP 2013