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Tense Egypt set for mass anti-Morsi rallies

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Opponents of Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi are pressing ahead with plans to stage mass rallies against the Islamist leader after he marked his turbulent first year in office with a defiant speech.

Not since Morsi was elected as the country's first civilian president in June 2012 has there been so much anxiety and anticipation in the Arab world's most populous nation.

To placate protesters who plan to take to the streets on Sunday, Morsi promised constitutional reforms and appealed for dialogue, warning the deep political divisions threatened to "paralyse" Egypt.

"Egypt faces many challenges. The polarisation has reached a stage that could threaten our democratic experience and paralyse the nation and cause chaos," Morsi said in a two-and-half hour speech late Wednesday.

The call for the June 30 protests was launched by Tamarod (Arabic for Rebellion), a grassroots movement launched in April seeking to withdraw confidence from Morsi.

Capitalising on Egyptians' low spirits caused by a severe economic crisis, including fuel shortages, power cuts and soaring inflation, it galvanised support, collecting over 15 million signatures calling for early presidential elections.

Morsi's opponents say he failed the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and brought the senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood to the presidency.

They accuse him of concentrating power in the hands of Islamists and of failing to address the core issues that sparked the revolt, namely freedom and social justice.

During his tenure, the economy has taken a tumble, investment has dried up, the vital tourism industry has been battered and inflation has soared.

In his address, Morsi admitted to having made mistakes and vowed to correct them.

"I have made many mistakes, there is no question. Mistakes can happen, but they need to be corrected," he told a packed auditorium of ministers and Islamist supporters.

"For the revolution to reach its goals, there must be reforms at the root.

"We Egyptians are able to overcome this phase and overcome the challenges... All I ask of you now is to sit and discuss... to look for the positives and build on them; and to fix the negatives."

Morsi said he was forming a committee to look into amending the controversial constitution, drafted by a mainly Islamist panel and slammed by opponents for failing to represent all Egyptians.

"All political movements and parties are invited to put forward their suggestions for constitutional amendments."

But he blamed remnants of the Mubarak era of trying to abort the revolution and bring back the corrupt regime from which they benefitted.

Morsi's supporters say he is cleansing state institutions of decades of corruption and accuse the opposition of inciting violence.

They say Morsi was elected in free and fair elections and have slammed any attempt to remove him from office as a coup against democracy.

The powerful army has been watching the turmoil from the background, although it broke its silence this week to warn it would intervene if violence flares.

"The armed forces have the obligation to intervene to stop Egypt from plunging into a dark tunnel of conflict and infighting," said army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

"It is the national and moral duty of the army to intervene... to prevent sectarian strife or the collapse of state institutions," he said.

The statement was powerful reminder of the military's political weight, even if in the shadows.

On the streets, opinion is divided over the army's role.

"I'm disappointed with Morsi, I'm disappointed with the opposition. Our hope is that the army has a plan in order to avoid complete chaos," said Cairo resident Mohamed Samir.

But others firmly believe the army should stay out of politics, pointing to the turbulent military-led transition after Mubarak's ouster marred by violence and rights abuses.

"We didn't have a revolution to end up with a military in power," said 34-year-old Ghareeb al-Sayyed.

In Cairo, the anxiety is palpable.

Pro- and anti-Morsi protests have already begun in several provinces. One person was killed and 237 injured in clashes between both sides in the Nile Delta province of Mansura.

Residents are withdrawing cash and stocking up on food, and many companies have said they will close on Sunday, the first day of the working week in Egypt.

Fuel shortages have seen cars queueing overnight outside petrol stations bringing parts of the capital to a standstill and adding to the tension.

An alliance of Islamist parties has called for an "open-ended" demonstration on Friday in support of Morsi under the slogan "legitimacy is a red line", two days before the planned rallies against him, raising fears of violence.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130627/tense-egypt-set-mass-anti-morsi-rallies