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Mursi supporters stand firm, brace for Egypt crackdown


By Yasmine Saleh and Angus MacSwan

CAIRO (Reuters) - Islamist supporters of deposed President Mohamed Mursi refused to abandon their protest camps in Cairo on Monday and said they would fend off any police crackdown with sticks, stones and their faith.

Security sources and a government official had said on Sunday that police action to dismantle the camps would begin at dawn despite the risk of violent clashes. But nothing transpired during the course of the day.

At the al-Nahda camp, centered round a traffic circle and extending down a palm tree-lined boulevard next to the city zoo, protesters lolled in the shade of tents away from the mid-afternoon sun. The mood was solemn but not fearful.

Asked about the threat to break up the camps, Ahmed Shargawy, a 23-year-old translator, said: "They said that 15 days ago too. They always say they are going to finish it."

A block away, half a dozen armored troop carriers and a few squads of soldiers were positioned outside a police station, but they did not look like part of a strike force ready to move.

The authorities are keen to end the protests, the focus of opposition to the military's overthrow of Mursi six weeks ago.

They had held off from acting over the Eid al-Fitr holiday after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. The holiday ended on Sunday. A security source said the delay was also because crowds had swelled the camps after reports of an imminent crackdown.

The demonstrators say Mursi, Egypt's first freely elected leader, must be reinstated. The army says it acted on behalf of Egyptians who had staged huge rallies to demand Mursi's removal.

Western and Arab envoys and some senior Egyptian government members have pressed the army to avoid using force as it tries to end the crisis in the Arab nation of 84 million people.

Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said the right to peaceful protest would be guaranteed and every effort was being made to resolve the situation through dialogue. But he suggested there was a limit to the government's patience.

"It is not reasonable for any democratic government to have to accept sit-ins where violence is being used and the security of citizens and the country is being threatened," state news agency MENA quoted him as saying in an interview with the BBC.


One security official said the protesters would be removed gradually. Warnings would be issued and police would use water cannons and tear gas to disperse those who refused to budge.

Another security official said: "Violence will not be used unless the protesters get violent."

Mursi's defiant supporters have fortified the camps with sandbags and piles of rocks in anticipation of a crackdown.

Thousands of Islamists were still camped out at the biggest sit-in, near the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in northeast Cairo. At entrances to the sprawling site, men with sticks shouted "God is greatest" to keep morale high.

"I have been here for 28 days and will stay until I die as the issue is now about religion, not politics. We want Islam, they want liberalism," said protester Ahmed Ramadan, who quit his job in a Red Sea tourist resort to join the camp.

At al-Nahda, protesters had made slits in big steel plates to use as shields. Sandbag barricades blocked the boulevard.

Abdulahmad Gawzel Ali, a 23-year-old student standing guard at the camp entrance, said: "We will stay until Mursi is back. Sisi should be in jail. We are not afraid."

Asked if he feared an uneven contest with police, he said: "We are peaceful. We have no weapons, just rocks and sticks. If they keep shooting, we will move to a different place."

Questioned about the women and children inside the camp, who the authorities say will be used as human shields, Ali said: "They are in the safest place in Egypt."

A pro-Mursi grouping, which includes the Muslim Brotherhood, called for nationwide rallies on Monday and Tuesday against the military. Seven people were wounded at a pro-Mursi march in Cairo when rival groups threw stones and engaged in fist fights.

Army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is under pressure from hardline officers to end the sit-ins, security sources say.

Almost 300 people have been killed in political violence since Sisi deposed Mursi, including dozens of his supporters shot dead by security forces in two incidents.

Egypt has been convulsed by political and economic turmoil since the 2011 uprising that ended 30 years of autocratic rule by U.S.-backed President Hosni Mubarak, and the most populous Arab nation is now more polarized than any time for many years.

There is deepening alarm in the West over the course taken by Egypt, which sits astride the Suez Canal and receives $1.5 billion a year in mainly military aid from the United States.

Mursi became president in June 2012. But concerns he was seeking an Islamist autocracy and his failure to ease economic hardships led to mass rallies prompting the army to oust him.

Since then Brotherhood leaders have been jailed. Mursi is detained in an unknown location.

(Additional reporting by Shadia Nasrallal and Michael Georgy; Editing by Alistair Lyon)