Thousands rally for Mursi in Cairo, clashes in rural Egypt

CAIRO Fri Aug 9, 2013 12:34pm EDT

1 of 3. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi walk with their families in the sit-in area of Rab'a al- Adawiya Square, where they are camping, on the first day of the Eid al-Fitr holiday after the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, in Cairo August 8, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Asmaa Waguih

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CAIRO (Reuters) - Thousands of supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi rallied in a protest camp around a Cairo mosque on Friday, defying warnings from the army-installed government that they should give up and leave.

Leaders of Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood mounted a stage at the Rabaa al-Adawiya site to demand that he brought back to power.

"Soldier, your place is not in politics," senior official Ahmed Aref said as the people pumped fists in the air.

Despite international concern that a violent confrontation was imminent, security forces were nowhere to be seen.

But in the rural province of Fayoum, police broke up clashes between several hundred supporters and opponents of Mursi with teargas, security sources said. Seven protesters and five policemen were hurt.

And in separate incidents in the Nile Delta province of Gharbiya, four people were injured in fights between pro-Mursi protesters and residents near an army base, state-run Al-Ahram newspaper said. Thirteen Mursi supporters were arrested.

The Rabaa camp in northeast Cairo is the major potential flashpoint of the political crisis brought on by the military overthrow of the Islamist Mursi and establishment of an interim government five weeks ago.

Crowds chanted "Down with the coup, the coup is terrorism" as thousands streamed in from other mosques in columns.

Security forces have warned the protesters to leave peacefully or face action. But the camp has been turned into a virtual fortress, protected by sandbag-and-brick barricades.

"Kill as you like. We will not move from here," a preacher told worshippers at Friday prayers in the mosque. "This is a revolution. You who are present will make the decision on whether you will disperse."

Despite the clashes elsewhere, an undeclared truce seems to have taken hold at Rabaa over the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which celebrates the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and finishes on Sunday.

No police or troops could be seen in the immediate vicinity on Friday afternoon and after the speeches, the event took on a festive air, including performances of traditional dance.

Some Egyptians felt the security forces would not attack before the end of Eid as this would be sacrilegious.

But a diplomat from a European country said his country was worried about the risk of violence this weekend.

"It's a dangerous situation. There is a concern that things could turn serious on Saturday and Sunday," he told Reuters.

Mursi took power as Egypt's first democratically elected president in June 2012. But fears he was trying to set up an Islamist autocracy and his failure to ease economic hardships led to mass street demonstrations which triggered the army move.

The crisis reached a dangerous new phase after the collapse this week of an international effort to bridge the gap between the two sides and avert bloodshed. Mursi and many other leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood remain in prison.

TANKS AND BULLETS

At Rabaa, groups of men armed with sticks guarded the camp entrance. One man, a 43-year-old employment agent named Mohamed, said they would defend their position until Mursi was restored.

"We are not afraid because we are right. We are all martyrs in the making. Those who rape the rights of the people are the losers. We are not terrorized by tanks and bullets," he said.

Despite the brave words, the weapons on display would prove little match for the security forces. The government says, however, that the Muslim Brotherhood is heavily armed.

Many women and children were also present. Young girls had their hair made up for Eid with bright pink, yellow or blue hair bands and colorful new dresses. The government has said the children were being used as human shields.

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

Diplomats say any settlement would have to involve a dignified exit for Mursi, Brotherhood acceptance of the new situation, the release of political prisoners arrested since the takeover, and a future political role for the Brotherhood.

So far, the Brotherhood has refused to accept what it calls the illegal coup and has publicly demanded Mursi's return.

Senior Brotherhood figure Mohamed El-Beltagi reiterated those demands before the Rabaa crowd and said those responsible for the protesters' killings must be prosecuted.

In Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius spoke on Thursday with various Egyptian players by telephone. He underlined the need for dialogue and compromise rather than fuelling tension or inciting violence, a French spokesman said.

The European diplomat said the Egyptian army was under enormous pressure from hardliners in its ranks and from part of the populace to take harsh action against the Brotherhood.

On the Brotherhood side, some, too, advocated a tough stand.

"They have people among them who are ready to go to the limit," the diplomat said.

European diplomats were stressing to the new leadership that they were damaging their own and Egypt's image. But no meetings in Egypt or elsewhere were planned at this stage since the breakdown of the international mediation, the diplomat said.

(Additional reporting by Catherine Bremer in Paris and Michael Georgy in Cairo, Editing by Michael Roddy)

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