CAIRO — Egyptians and their security forces prepared for demonstrations on Sunday that may determine their future, two years after people power toppled a dictator and ushered in a democracy crippled by bitter divisions.
"The longest day," headlined government newspaper Al-Gomhuriya above pictures of two rival camps in Cairo. One was of Islamist supporters of President Mohammed Morsi, the other of protesters in Tahrir Square who said they wanted him out by day's end or they would sit there until he goes, like Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Thousands of activists were gathering at those sites and at Morsi's suburban presidential palace, not far from the Islamist camp. Major rallies were not expected before late afternoon and streets in major cities were quiet as the working week resumed.
In Cairo, thousands were at Tahrir Square, seat of the uprising of 2011. Others gathered outside the presidential palace several miles away, which was under heavy guard.
In a nearby suburban neighborhood, the Muslim Brotherhood and allies who include former militant organizations have set up camp outside a mosque. Guarded by baton-wielding civilians in protective clothing, the Islamists said they would defend Morsi.
Both sides say they want to avoid violence but that has not prevented incidents in which the Brotherhood says several of its offices have been attacked and five of its supporters killed.
Among the Islamists at the camp in Cairo, Ahmed Hosny, 37, said: "I came here to say, 'We are with you Morsi, with the legitimate order and against the thugs'.
"This is our revolution and no one will take it from us."
It remained unclear how many would turn out. Previous protests fizzled but these might not. The army warned it might intervene if politicians remain deadlocked and violence spiraled out of control.
State newspaper headlines — "Egypt gripped by fear" and "Egypt under the volcano" — gave the government view: that liberal opposition leaders might let loose violent remnants of the old regime to overthrow the country's first freely elected leader.
Many independent papers urged people onto the streets on the very day that Morsi completes his first year in office: "Street to Morsi: One year's enough," headlined Al-Masry Al-Youm. Others referred to what many protesters will demand: "Red card for the president". Others went simply with: "Judgment Day".
Liberal leaders said nearly half the voting population — 22 million people — had signed a petition calling for new elections, although there is no one obvious challenger to Morsi.
With the long dominant, U.S-funded military waiting in the wings, and world powers fearing violence may unhinge an already troubled Middle East, Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and radical allies pledge to defend what they say is the legitimate order.
Several people have been killed, including an American student, and hundreds wounded in days of street fighting.
Andrew Pochter of Maryland, in Egypt to teach English, was stabbed to death in Alexandria during a protest at Morsi office there.
Morsi calls his opponents bad losers backed by "thugs" from Mubarak's old secret police. He is banking on the "Tamarud - Rebel!" coalition being a damp squib. He met the army chief on Saturday as well as leaders of allied Islamist parties.
An economic crisis deepened by unrest and political deadlock might spur many less partisan Egyptians to join the rallies, due to start in the afternoon in Cairo. But many, too, are weary of turmoil and skeptical that the opposition's demand to reset the rules of the new democracy is better than soldiering on.
U.S. President Barack Obama called on Egyptians to focus on dialog. His ambassador to Egypt has angered the opposition by suggesting protests are not helping the economy.
Liberal leaders, fractious and defeated in a series of ballots last year, hope that by putting millions on the streets they can force Morsi to relent and hand over to a technocratic administration that can organize new elections.
"We all feel we're walking on a dead-end road and that the country will collapse," said Mohamed ElBaradei, a former U.N. nuclear watchdog chief, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and now liberal party leader in his homeland.
Religious authorities have warned of "civil war". The army insists it will respect the "will of the people."
Islamists interpret that to mean army support for election results. Opponents believe that the army may heed the popular will as expressed on the streets, as it did in early 2011 when the generals decided Mubarak's time was up.
The United States has evacuated non-essential diplomatic staff and families and Obama said protecting U.S. missions was a priority. He was criticized at home when the ambassador to Libya was killed last year in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi.
The Egyptian army, half a million strong and financed by Washington since it backed a peace treaty with Israel three decades ago, says it has deployed to protect key installations.
Among these is the Suez Canal. Cities along the waterway vital to global trade are bastions of anti-government sentiment. A bomb killed a protester in Port Said on Friday.
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