Supporters of President Mohammad Mursi shout slogans during a rally in Nasser City in Cairo on Friday. Image Credit: AP

Cairo: Flexing their muscle ahead of massive protests planned by the opposition, Egypt’s ruling Islamists have vowed a series of big demonstrations in support of President Mohammad Mursi, who is facing increasing demands to step down almost a year after taking office.

Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies launched a counter-offensive on Friday with a massive rally in Cairo attended by an estimated 2 million people.

“They [the opposition] say they want a referendum in order to hold early presidential elections. This gathering is the greatest referendum on the land of Egypt,” Mohammad Al Beltajui, a senior Brotherhood official, told the congregation around the mosque of Raba’a Al Adawia in the eastern Cairo quarter of Nasr City. “We will protect legitimacy with our souls and blood,” he added.

Some participants in the rally were seen practising martial arts in a garden nearby, a move seen by opponents as intended to discourage ordinary Egyptians from taking part in the anti-Mursi protests for fear of violence.

The Islamists have planned a second rally on Sunday in the vicinity of another mosque in Cairo.

Signature collection campaign

A youth protest group, Tamarod (Arabic for rebellion), has been campaigning for collecting signatures, outnumbering the votes gained by Mursi in last year’s presidential elections, to withdraw confidence from him and demand early presidential elections. The group, launched on May 1, said it has exceeded the target of 15 million signatures and plans to hold an open-ended sit-in outside the presidential place, starting June 30 that marks the first anniversary of Mursi’s presidency.

Organisers said their protest would be peaceful.

The secular-minded opposition accuses Mursi of failing to manage the country and acting at the Brotherhood’s behest.

Meanwhile, the Islamists claim the opposition moves target Islam, the religion of the vast majority of Egyptians. “We will continue to urge them to join Islam and tell them to repent,” Saeed Abdul Azeem, a hardline Islamist, told the Friday rally, referring to Mursi’s opponents. “Islam will eventually prevail.” Mursi’s supporters have in recent weeks described opponents as mainly Christians, communists and loyalists of former president Hosni Mubarak.

Shaikh Al Azhar Ahmad Al Tayyeb, Egypt’s top Muslim cleric, last week lent implicit backing to the protests against Mursi, saying that peaceful demonstrations are permitted in Islam and opponents should not be branded infidels.

Threat of violence

On Friday’s demonstration, Abdullah Al Senawi, a prominent leftist journalist, told Gulf News: “They brought in their supporters from around the country to show they are strong. But this is the maximum the Brotherhood can mobilise.” “Though the rally was titled ‘No to Violence’, most speakers threatened opponents and warned of bloodshed.”

Mursi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, has shrugged off the planned protests, warning of a “resolute response” to any bid to cause chaos. “The call for demonstration on June 30 reflects the climate of freedom bestowed on us by the January 25 revolution,” Mursi said in an interview with the government-run newspaper, Akhbar Al Youm, published on Saturday. He was referring to a 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak. “However, expression of opinion should be peaceful. The state will take all measures to face violence and sabotage whatever its source may be.”