By Tom Perry and Alastair Macdonald

CAIRO | Fri Jun 21, 2013

(Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Islamist supporters of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi gathered in Cairo after Friday prayers to show support for the elected head of state before protests that his opponents hope can force him from office.

Crowds converged on a mosque in the suburb of Nasr City, many waving the national flag, some carrying pictures of the bearded president, in what is intended to demonstrate the Islamists’ strength of numbers ahead of the opposition rallies set for June 30, the first anniversary of Mursi’s inauguration.

“Yes to respecting the will of the people!” read some banners.

“There are people seeking a coup against the lawful order,” said demonstrator Gaber Nader, 22, his head protected from the burning sun by a green banner from Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood, the movement whose organizational strength has won it successive elections since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

“Dr Mursi won in free and fair elections like in any state in the world,” Nader said, shrugging off concerns among the less well organized opposition that the Brotherhood is aiming for a monopoly of power and to install Islamic rule and social order.

“Secular parties are eating the democracy God gave them.”

Mursi’s opponents say they have gathered about 15 million signatures – more than the 13 million votes that elected Mursi a year ago – on a petition calling on him to step down; they say new elections could end the paralyzing polarization of society, though no obvious leader has emerged to build consensus.

Mursi’s opponents have attracted support from many Egyptians who are less politically engaged but exasperated by economic stagnation under the Islamists.

Supporters of the Brotherhood feel their electoral success is under siege from unelected institutions and vested interests rooted in the Mubarak era, when their party was banned. Reflecting this, some in Friday’s crowd – mostly men, with a few heavily veiled women – chanted for “A purge of the judiciary!” and “A purge of the media!”

There was no trouble evident in Cairo, where people packed streets for hundreds of meters around the rallying point at the mosque; there were scuffles in Alexandria when Mursi supporters and opponents faced off briefly in Egypt’s second city.

In Cairo, Brotherhood members armed with green staves said they were ready to protect demonstrators from “thugs”.

“The other side will take this as an excuse for anarchy,” said one man on guard, 26-year-old preacher Amr Hamam, pointing to dozens of injuries in scuffles across Egypt in the past week.

HARDLINERS

Friday’s rally was held close to the spot where Islamists gunned down Mubarak’s predecessor Anwar Sadat in 1981. The Brotherhood had by that time renounced violence but suffered in a crackdown after Sadat died, as did hardliners from al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, which was involved in the assassination.

Unable, or unwilling, to draw more liberal figures into his administration, and losing the full support of the conservative Salafi Islamist Nour party, Mursi has turned to more radical groups for backing – notably to Gamaa al-Islamiya, one of whose members he made governor of the tourist town of Luxor this week.

That appointment infuriated many who fear further eroding of tourism revenues, since Gamaa al-Islamiya is associated with the massacre at a pharaonic temple in Luxor in 1997 of dozens of foreign visitors, although it has also now renounced violence,

On Friday, dozens of Gamaa al-Islamiya supporters joined the rally for Mursi. Waving their party banner, men chanted their demand for the imposition of Islamic law and rejection of “liberal violence”: “The people want God’s law,” they repeated.

One woman, in black veil and green Islamic headband, said she feared the removal of Mursi would return Egypt to the army rule under which her son was tortured: “They destroyed his mind,” Zeinab Abdullah, 54, said. Such fears among Islamists have led some to warn of civil war if the generals who oversaw the transition from Mubarak to elections move against Mursi.

OPPOSITION FRUSTRATION

Opposition groups range from the young liberals who first took to Tahrir Square in January 2011 to challenge Mubarak, to conservatives yearning for the stability of army rule. Many in Egypt’s 10-percent Christian minority also fear the Islamists.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former top U.N. diplomat who is a leader of the opposition “Rebel!” campaign, told Al-Hayat newspaper that economic problems, including power cuts as summer heat takes hold, were fuelling support for a movement which he said hoped to end the “total polarization in Egypt”.

ElBaradei said a united opposition push could bring an early presidential election that would unseat Mursi, though he himself would not run: “The division of the opposition put Mursi in power and I believe it has realized this mistake,” he said.

Rhetoric has grown more toxic in recent days: one Islamist cleric referred to Mursi’s opponents as “infidels” during a rally attended by the president last week. The opposition are billing it as Mursi’s last days in office, hoping for a repeat of the uprising that toppled Mubarak two and half years ago.

But lawyer Ahmed Farrag, 60, who came from Alexandria to rally for Mursi in Cairo on Friday, said: “It is a coup against the legitimate authorities by counter-revolutionaries present among the opposition parties and remnants of the regime.”

(Additional reporting by Shadia Nasralla; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing by David Stamp)

Source: Reuters.

Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/21/us-egypt-protests-idUSBRE95K0L820130621.

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