By Maggie Fick and Angus MacSwan
CAIRO (Reuters) – Supporters of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi prepared for confrontation on Friday, and the United States said Egypt’s military had been “restoring democracy” when it drove him from office.
Thousands were gathered in two Muslim Brotherhood camps in Cairo, defying warnings from the new army-backed government to abandon their protest or face action from security forces.
At the main Rabaa al-Adawiya camp on Friday morning, young men wearing crash helmets and brandishing sticks mounted a first line of defense behind barricades of sandbags and bricks.
International diplomats, rights groups and Egyptian religious leaders appealed to authorities to avoid bloodshed.
Political sources said there had been intense debate within the cabinet on the wisdom of the security forces taking action.
Almost 300 people have died in political violence since Mursi was overthrown on July 3, including 80 of his supporters shot dead by security forces in a single incident last Saturday.
Mursi, an Islamist who became Egypt’s first freely-elected president in June 2011, had faced weeks of street demonstrations against his rule. Many Egyptians were frustrated by his failure to get to grips with social and economic problems and feared he was leading the country towards stricter Islamist control.
He is now being held by the military at a secret location.
The turmoil has left Egypt more polarized than at any time since U.S.-backed autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011.
The new civilian government installed by the military received a boost on Thursday from the United States, which had previously given mixed messages about events in a country that has long been a bulwark of Washington’s Middle East policy.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Pakistan Egypt’s army had been “restoring democracy” when it toppled Mursi.
“The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people, all of whom were afraid of a descendance into chaos, into violence,” he told Pakistan’s GEO TV.
“And the military did not take over, to the best of our judgment so – so far.”
The United States has avoided calling Mursi’s overthrow a “coup” – a move that would have triggered a cut-off in the $1.3 billion of U.S. aid the Egyptian military receives each year.
Kerry has however called on Egypt to respect the right of peaceful protest, including the pro-Mursi rallies.
“AVOID A BLOODBATH”
European Union envoy Bernardino Leon, who is in Cairo trying to defuse tensions, said on Thursday the EU would not easily accept the use of violence to break up the protest camp.
Efforts should be made to reach a political solution by involving moderates on both sides, he said.
Human Rights Watch said the government should halt any plans to disperse the Muslim Brotherhood camp by force.
“To avoid another bloodbath, Egypt’s civilian rulers need to ensure the ongoing right of protesters to assemble peacefully, and seek alternatives to a forcible dispersal of the crowds,” said Nadim Houry, HRW’s deputy Middle East director.
It criticized security forces for using excessive force.
Army spokesman Colonel Ahmed Ali said the military wanted no political role but was acting “to support the Egyptian people in their revolution”.
In an interview with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Pan-Arab newspaper, he said people had the right to demonstrate peacefully.
“But these demonstrations have departed from a peaceful context and tend toward violent acts in many cases,” he said.
At Rabaa al-Adawiya, blood from last Saturday’s shooting still stained the ground.
“The Interior Ministry is practicing the same oppressive policies of Mubarak,” said Soha Osman, 40, a pharmacist from Alexandria, wearing a beige full-face veil.
A group of men chanted “Interior Ministry thugs” and “Leave Sisi, it’s your last day,” – referring to Armed Forces Chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a prime figure in the overthrow.
“They want to take Islam from the country. It’s not about Mursi, they want a secular country and they destroyed him to make people hate the idea of an Islamic state,” said another woman, walking with her husband and son toward the sit-in.
The new government’s transition plan envisions parliamentary elections in six months, to be followed by a presidential vote.
Senior Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam El-Erian on Friday reiterated the Islamists’ position that it would not deal with the new rulers in trying to find a solution.
“What is needed to convince people that democratic institutions are being built is to cancel the bloody, fascist military coup and to eject these fascists … and to convince the people that they can decide their fate and choose their leaders,” he said on his social media page.
(Additional reporting by Noah Browning; Editing by Andrew Roche)