Egypt’s military has started to bring in reinforcements of troops and armour to bases near Egyptian cities ahead of 30 June protests planned by the opposition to force the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi out.
The movement of forces comes amid heavy speculation over the army’s role in the looming crisis. The presidency says that the military has been co-ordinating closely with Mr 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.
Some Islamists accuse activists of paving the ground for a coup, a charge that the opposition vehemently denies.
Military officials yesterday said the 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 went to major bases to the east and west of the city of some 18 million people.
The protests mark president Morsi’s first year in office.
On Sunday, army chief General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who is also defence minister, gave Mr Morsi and the opposition a week to reach an understanding to prevent bloodshed. There has been no sign of compromise by either side.
Gen El-Sissi also warned that the military would intervene to stop the nation from entering a “dark tunnel.” Appointed by Mr Morsi last August, he also gave a thinly-veiled warning to Mr Morsi’s backers that the military will step in if the protesters are attacked during the planned protests.
Mr Morsi has sought to project the impression of business-as-usual since Gen el-Sissi’s comments on Sunday. He has discussed with cabinet ministers fuel shortages and power cuts and urged others to ensure that basic goods are available ahead of the start, around 10 July, of the holy month of Ramadan, when devout Muslims refrain from food, water, smoking and sex from dawn to sunset.
However, the buildup to the Sunday protests comes as the country is paralysed by an acute shortage of fuel that has created massive traffic jams caused by the long lines outside petrol 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.
Cabinet ministers blame the fuel shortage on corruption, rumours and hoarding by a public that is nervous over the coming protests.
Mr Morsi’s opponents calculate they can force him out through the sheer number of people they bring into the streets – 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, in turn, say the mainly liberal and secular political opposition is fomenting a coup.
Security officials, who spoke anonymously, said army commanders have carried out reconnaissance missions in areas and facilities they intend to protect.
For example, the commander of the central military region on Tuesday inspected a media complex on the outskirts of Cairo that houses several TV networks, some critical of Mr Morsi. The complex was besieged at least twice in recent months by Islamists loyal to him to intimidate the networks and hosts of talk shows critical of the president.
Beside the complex, the military plans to protect the massive Nile-side building housing state TV, the Suez Canal, the cabinet offices and parliament.
Mr Morsi’s supporters have accused organisers of the 30 June protests of planning to use violence, but the protesters have repeatedly vowed to keep their demonstrations peaceful.