Thousands of supporters of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi rallied in their first major show of force since the Islamist leader’s November move to expand his powers triggered weeks of violent protests.
The rally organized by Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, a Salafist group, was billed as “Together Against Violence.” Islamists have criticized Mursi’s secularist and youth-activist opponents for provoking clashes by challenging the president’s rule.
“With our souls and our blood, we sacrifice for you Islam,” some chanted, while others called out: “He who loves Egypt doesn’t destroy it.”
Protests against Mursi have boiled over into violent clashes in recent weeks, deepening the turmoil that has marred the country’s transition since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak two years ago. The unrest has hobbled Egypt’s economy, growing at the slowest pace for two decades as investors and tourists stay away.
Thousands of Islamists gathered by Cairo University. A stage erected in front of the protesters bore a banner of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric imprisoned in the U.S. Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood has said it will only take part in the rally in a “symbolic” way.
The Islamists have largely steered clear of protests for more than a month, cautious that taking to the streets may result in clashes like those that followed Mursi’s Nov. 22 decree giving him temporary extra powers. Following its announcement, protesters attacked several Muslim Brotherhood offices, torching them and clashing with police.
After a lull of several weeks, violence broke out again on the Jan. 25 anniversary of the start of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak.
“Opposition forces should respect people’s choice, adopt peaceful methods to come to power through the ballot box,” Nasr Abdel Salam, the head of Al-Gamaa’s political arm, said by phone yesterday, blaming the secular National Salvation Front opposition bloc for the latest wave of violence.
Mursi’s critics accuse the president, who became the country’s first democratically elected civilian leader in June, of seeking to advance the interests of the Brotherhood while failing to revive the economy or end police brutality. His supporters say it’s too early to judge the president’s accomplishments and that frequent protests undermine the government’s efforts to stabilize the country.
More than 30 activist groups plan a march today to the presidential palace in Cairo’s Qubba district to protest Mursi’s rule, Tamer el-Qady, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Youth Union, said in a television interview late yesterday. The other presidential palace in Heliopolis has been the site of some of the past month’s clashes.
In Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, clashes broke out during a funeral service for a man who died while reportedly in police custody, fueling anger over allegations that police have used excessive violence recent protests.
Abdel Salam said that more than 12 Islamist groups are in talks to join forces for upcoming parliamentary elections. No date has been set for the vote. Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Ahmed Aref confirmed that there are efforts to coordinate with other parties, without giving details.
Islamists held about 70 percent of seats in the lower house of parliament which was dissolved by court order last year. Some opposition groups have said they may boycott the upcoming vote unless demands including amendments to the Islamist-drafted constitution are met.