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Cairo on Edge as Military Warns of Crackdown

  • Elizabeth Arrott

Egyptian authorities say they will not tolerate the massive sit-ins by members of the largely Islamist opposition, but threats of dispersal are being dismissed by the thousands hunkering down in the encampments.

Cairo is on edge. Opponents of military rule said they would stay in their protest camps until ousted President Mohamed Morsi was re-instated. Authorities, citing national security, said they would use any means necessary to clear the sites.

Some of the protesters said the camps posed no threat.

Ahmed Abu Bakr, a professor at Suez University, was among a group of men marching out of the camp for a rally at a security office. He waved aloft his Koran.

"All of the military say that we have weapons here, that we have machine guns here. But no one has anything. Nothing here. Just our Korans," he said.

But some of the marchers flashing peace signs were also carrying sticks. Others wore helmets and gas masks, in anticipation of clashes.

The march ended peacefully, but there has been deadly fighting in the weeks since opponents of the military-backed government have taken to the streets. For all the talk of peaceful demonstrations, pro-Morsi computer engineer Ahmed Omar ruled out the idea of Gandhi-like passive resistance.

"They're going to definitely fight back. That's not going to happen right now," he said.

Rights groups pointed to past overreach by government forces and argued against a crackdown. But they also said security concerns were real.

Human Rights Watch researcher Heba Morayef said the Muslim Brotherhood, the main force behind the protests, was trying to escalate the tensions, and noted some of their members have guns.

"Security agencies believe that every day that passes with these sit-ins continuing allows for the planning of an escalation and potential counter-attacks on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood in the sit-ins,” said Morayef.

But acting on those fears, she said, could prove disastrous.

"I would argue because the police doesn't know how to exercise restraint, and always ends up using excessive force and killing around protesters, that the cost of a forcible dispersal is not something from which Egypt can ever recover," said the researcher.

Some hoped the military's warnings - including helicopters buzzing the sit-ins, dropping flyers telling protesters to leave -- was part bluff.

"They will keep them just like that and then most likely they will besiege them, cut the supplies and just gradually they will be withdrawing, you know. Some would leave. That's it. But I don't think they will go all the way," said political sociologist Said Sadek of the American University in Cairo.

He said that at least one moment of crisis has passed - in the immediate aftermath of Armed Forces chief Abdel Fattah el-Sissi's call last month for a “mandate” to oppose “terrorism.”

Sadek said the military knew all too well what a deadly crackdown on Islamist forces could bring.

"They may start the last suicidal stage, you know, terrorism. It can include planting bombs here and there like they did in 1992 against tourism and it can also be a wave of political assassinations. It is possible now. I don't exclude it," he said.

There may be larger forces at play urging restraint, including the stream of foreign officials visiting Cairo, their presence a possible deterrent to a show of force. But after they leave, and after the holiday, Eid, ends next week, the danger of a showdown could re-emerge.
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