Egypt's army in position to make good on warning

Egyptian army soldiers take their positions at an armored vehicle in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, June 26, 2013.
AP Photo

CAIRO Egypt's military on Wednesday brought in reinforcements of troops and armor to bases near Egyptian cities ahead of Sunday's protests planned by the opposition to try to force the Islamist president out, security officials said.

Clashes between supporters and opponents of President Mohammed Morsi erupted Wednesday, killing at least one person.

The troop movements accompanied speculation over the army's role in the crisis. The presidency says that the military has been coordinating with Morsi's government in the run-up to the protests, but activists say they are looking to the army for protection from hard-line government supporters.

In anticipation of the protests, Egypt's army chief warned on Sunday that the military is ready to intervene to stop the nation from entering a "dark tunnel" of internal conflict.

Some Islamists accuse activists of paving the way for a coup, a charge that the opposition vehemently denies.

The security officials said the army deployments are restricted to the outskirts of major cities and inside existing military facilities. In Cairo, the focus of Sunday's protests, the extra troops deployed to major bases to the east and west of the city of some 18 million people.

The protests mark President Mohammed Morsi's first year in office.

Tension is building, and clashes between supporters and opponents of the president are growing in frequency, particularly in cities north of Cairo on the Mediterranean coast and in the Nile Delta.

On Wednesday, at least one person was killed and scores injured in the coastal city of Mansoura, according to hospital and security officials.

In Tanta in the Nile Delta, clashes between the two sides also broke out Wednesday. There were no reports of casualties.

On Sunday, army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who is also the defense minister, gave Morsi and the opposition a week to reach an understanding to prevent bloodshed. There has been no sign of compromise by either side.

El-Sissi also warned the military would intervene to stop the nation from entering a "dark tunnel." Appointed by Morsi last August, he also gave a thinly veiled warning to Morsi's backers that the military will step in if the protesters are attacked during the planned protests, as some hard-liners have threatened.

Morsi, who addresses the nation later on Wednesday, has sought to project the impression of business as usual since el-Sissi's comments. He has discussed fuel shortages and power cuts with Cabinet ministers. He urged other ministers to ensure that basic goods are available ahead of the start around July 10 of the holy month of Ramadan, when devout Muslims refrain from food, water, smoking and sex from dawn to sunset.

The buildup to the Sunday protests comes as the country is partly paralyzed by an acute shortage of fuel that has created traffic jams caused by the long lines outside gas stations. Egyptians have also been angered by a steep rise in prices that is caused in part by the sliding value of the Egyptian pound against the U.S. dollar.

Cabinet ministers blamed the fuel shortage on corruption, rumors and hoarding by a public that is nervous over the protests.

Morsi's opponents calculate they can force him out through the sheer number of people they bring into the streets starting Sunday — building on widespread discontent with his running of the country — plus the added weight of the army's declaration that it will protect them against attacks.

His backers say the mainly liberal and secular political opposition is fomenting a coup to remove an elected leader because they can't compete at the ballot box.

The security officials, who spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak to reporters, said army commanders have carried out reconnaissance missions in areas and facilities they intend to protect ahead of June 30.

For example, the commander of the central military region on Tuesday inspected a media complex on the western outskirts of Cairo that houses several TV networks, some critical of Morsi. The complex was besieged at least twice in recent months by Islamists loyal to Morsi attempting to intimidate the networks and hosts of talk shows critical of the president.

Besides that complex, the military plans to protect the massive Nile-side building housing state TV, the Suez Canal, the Cabinet offices and parliament.

Morsi's supporters have accused organizers of the June 30 protests of planning to use violence, but the protesters have repeatedly vowed to keep their demonstrations peaceful.

Morsi backers plan a rally in Cairo on Friday for the second successive week. In last Friday's rally, hard-line Islamists addressing the crowd vowed to "smash" the June 30 protesters whom they denounced as Mubarak loyalists.