The Associated Press
Thousands of opponents and supporters of Egypt's Islamist president began massing in city squares in competing rallies Sunday, gearing up for a day of massive nationwide protests that many fear could turn deadly as the opposition seeks to push out Mohammed Morsi.
Waving Egyptian flags, crowds descended on Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo, one of multiple sites in Cairo and around the country where they plan rallies.
On the other side of Cairo, thousands of the Islamist leader's backers gathered not far from the presidential palace in a show of support.
The demonstrations on Sunday, the anniversary of Morsi's inauguration as Egypt's first freely elected leader, are the culmination of growing polarization since he took office.
The president is joined in one camp by his Islamist allies, including the Muslim Brotherhood and more hard-line groups. The other is an array of secular and liberal Egyptians as well as moderate Muslims and Christians — and what the opposition says is a broad sector of the general public that has turned against the Islamists.
There is a sense among opponents and supporters of Morsi that Sunday's rally is a make-or-break day, hiking worries of violence. Already at least seven people, including an American, have been killed in clashes between the two camps over the past week, mainly in Nile Delta cities and the coastal city of Alexandria.
The opposition believes that with sheer numbers in the street, it can pressure Morsi to step down — perhaps with the added weight of the powerful military if it signals the president should go. But Islamists have vowed to defend Morsi.
In an interview published Sunday in The Guardian, Morsi said he had no plans to meet the protesters' demand for early presidential election.
"If we changed someone in office who (was elected) according to constitutional legitimacy — well, there will (be) people or opponents opposing the new president too, and a week or a month later, they will ask him to step down," Morsi told the British daily.
"There is no room for any talk against this constitutional legitimacy," he said.
As the crowds swelled in Tahrir, birthplace of the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak, traffic in the normally capital's normally clogged streets was light at midday as many residents chose to stay home for fear of violence. Banks were closing early and most government departments were either closed for the day or were thinly staffed.
Thousands of Morsi's supporters have staged a sit-in since Friday in front of the Rabia al-Adawiya Mosque near the Ittihadiya presidential palace. In the evening, anti-Morsi crowds plan to march on the palace, and Morsi supporters have vowed to defend it if it is attacked.
The opposition protests emerge from a petition campaign by a youth activist group known as Tamarod, Arabic for "rebel." For several months, the group has been collecting signatures on a call for Morsi to step down. On Saturday the group announced it had more than 22 million signatures — proof, it claims, that a broad sector of the public no longer wants Morsi in office.
It was not possible to verify the claim. Morsi's supporters have questioned the authenticity and validity of the signatures, but have produced no evidence of fraud.
Morsi, who has three years left in his presidential term, claims that Mubarak loyalists are behind the planned protests. His supporters say Tamarod is a cover for thugs loyal to Mubarak.
The 22 million signatures, while they have no legal weight, deal a symbolic blow to Morsi at a time when he is widely seen by Egyptians to have failed to tackle the country's most pressing problems, from surging crime rates and high unemployment to fuel shortages and power outages.
If verified, the number of people who signed the petition calling on Morsi to step down would be nearly twice the number who voted for him a year ago in a run-off that he won with around 52 percent of the vote.
Adding to his troubles, eight lawmakers from the country's interim legislature announced their resignation Saturday to protest Morsi's policies. The 270-seat chamber was elected early last year by less than 10 percent of Egypt's eligible voters, and is dominated by Islamists.
A legal adviser to Morsi also announced his resignation late Saturday in protest of what he said was Morsi's insult of judges in his latest speech on Wednesday.
With a sense of doom hanging over the country, Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi last week gave the president and his opponents a week to reach a compromise and warned that the military would intervene to prevent the nation from entering a "dark tunnel."
Morsi had called for national reconciliation talks in a Wednesday speech but offered no specifics. Opposition leaders dismissed the call as cosmetics.
Asked by The Guardian whether he was confident that the army would not intervene if the country becomes ungovernable, Morsi replied, "Very."
The Egyptian leader, however, said he did not know in advance of el-Sissi's last week's comments.