By HAMZA HENDAWI (AP)
CAIRO (AP) — Supporters of Egypt’s ousted president have dug in at their two Cairo sit-ins after security officials said police would besiege the entrenched protest camps within 24 hours — perhaps as early as Monday morning.
The development sets the stage for a possible confrontation between the military-backed government and the thousands gathered at the protest sites in support of ex-President Mohammed Morsi.
The protesters have said they will not leave until Morsi, ousted in a popularly supported coup on July 3, is reinstated.
Weeks of efforts by the international community to end the standoff and find a peaceful resolution have so far failed. Egypt’s interim prime minister warned just ahead of the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday that ended Sunday that the government’s decision to clear the sit-ins was “irreversible.”
Egypt’s new leadership says the protests have frightened residents of Cairo, sparked deadly violence and disrupted traffic. Leaders of the sit-in say they have been peaceful and blame security forces and “thugs” for violence. More than 250 people have killed in violence since Morsi’s ouster.
At the main Cairo sit-in, vendors said they have sold hundreds of gas masks, goggles and gloves to protesters readying for police tear gas. Three waist-high barriers of concrete and wood have been built against armored vehicles.
The security officials said they would set up cordons around the protest sites to bar anyone from entering, and one of the officials said that could begin as soon as sunrise.
But by dawn Monday, there was no indication of any troops moving and the government has not confirmed when forces would advance on the sit-ins.
The Interior Ministry has said it would take gradual measures, issuing warnings in recent weeks and saying it would use water cannons and tear gas to minimize casualties.
Interior Ministry officials, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss details of the security plans, said they are prepared for clashes that might be set off by the cordons. The officials said police are working with the Health Ministry to ensure ambulances are on hand for the wounded and that armored police vans are nearby to take away those arrested.
A special force within the riot police trained for crowd dispersal is expected to deal with protesters. In the past, however, Egypt’s riot police, many lacking the training to deal with unarmed civilians, have resorted to using lethal force.
Mass rallies two weeks ago called by Egypt’s military leader, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, showed that a large segment of Egypt’s population backs the armed forces’ actions against Morsi’s supporters.
Just before the holiday, the government said international efforts failed to reach a diplomatic solution to the standoff with Morsi’s supporters, who include members of his Muslim Brotherhood. A last-ditch effort was launched over the weekend by the Sunni Muslim world’s pre-eminent religious institution, Al-Azhar, to push for a resolution.
There are fears that violence from police trying to clear the two sites will spread to other areas of the capital and beyond, where thousands of Morsi supporters also hold near-daily marches.
The main protest camp in Cairo is between middle-class residential buildings and ground floor businesses. Its focal point is a mosque and an adjacent stage where Brotherhood leaders charged with inciting violence openly talk to journalists.