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100,000 Morsi backers stage show of force in Egypt

Saturday - 6/22/2013, 8:22am  ET

An Egyptian man waves an Islamic flag during a rally supporting Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, June 21, 2013. Supporters of Egypt's Islamist president rallied in a massive demonstration Friday in a show of force against opponents demanding his ouster amid increasing tension and polarization in the country. Demonstrators gathered in a main boulevard near Cairo's presidential palace, many with their fists raised, carrying pictures of President Mohammed Morsi and chanting religious slogans. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

MAGGIE MICHAEL
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- More than 100,000 supporters of Egypt's Islamist president staged a show of force Friday 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 U.S. 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."

Friday's mass gathering was ostensibly called by Islamists to denounce violence, but it took on the appearance of a war rally instead. Participants, many of them bearded and wearing robes or green bandanas, vowed in chants to protect President Mohammed Morsi against his opponents. Some who addressed the crowd spoke of smashing opposition protesters on June 30, the anniversary of Morsi's assumption of power.

"We want to stress that we will protect the legitimacy with our blood and souls," declared Mohammed el-Beltagy, a senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic group from which Morsi hails.

Most participants were bused 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 Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and posters of the president. Many raised their fists in the air.

Brotherhood members in red helmets and carrying white plastic sticks manned makeshift checkpoints, searching bags and checking IDs as demonstrators streamed into the venue.

Friday's 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 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. Morsi's opponents charge that he and his Brotherhood have been systematically amassing power, excluding liberals, secular groups and even ultraconservative 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 charge that the opposition, having lost elections, is trying to impose its will through street protests.

"They threaten us with June 30. We promise them they will be smashed that day," warned hard-line Islamist Tareq el-Zommor, who spent more than two decades in jail for his part in the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat.

"June 30 is Islamic," he said as the crowd chanted behind him.

"Our battle is an identity battle, against communism and secularism," read one banner carried by protesters. "The people want to implement Islamic Shariah law," declared another.

"I am here to support the legitimacy of an elected president who was chosen by the people through the ballot box," said Saad Ismail, a 43-year-old teacher from the Nile Delta province of Beheira.

Assem Abdel-Maged, a hard-line Islamist leader addressing the crowd, threatened that any attempt to oust Morsi would be met with an Islamic revolution. On Thursday, he told a gathering in the southern city of Minya that those conspiring against Morsi include Coptic Christian extremists, communists and remnants of Mubarak's regime.

"Our dead will be in heaven, and their dead will be in hell," he said.

The main boulevard where the rally was held, along with several side streets were packed as protesters streamed in for hours and the crowd grew to more than 100,000.

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 organizers 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."

After a months-long petition drive, opposition organizers announced on Thursday that they had collected up to 15 million signatures supporting Morsi's ouster and an early presidential election.

Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson, who has repeatedly been accused by the opposition of bias in favor of Morsi, caused outrage this week when she said she was "deeply skeptical" the protests will be fruitful and defended U.S. relations with Morsi and his Brotherhood as necessary because the group is part of the democratically elected Egyptian government.

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