Protesters against Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in Tahrir Square in Cairo, June 29, 2013. With a new wave of protests scheduled for Sunday, Egypt‚Äôs most respected Muslim cleric warned in a statement this weekend of potential ‚Äúcivil war." (Tara Todras-Whitehill/The New York Times)
CAIRO — Organizers of a mass protest against Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi claimed Saturday that more than 22 million people have signed their petition demanding the Islamist leader step down, asserting that the tally was a reflection of how much the public has turned against his rule.
The announcement adds to a sense of foreboding on the eve of opposition-led mass demonstrations that many fear could turn deadly and quickly spin out of control, dragging the country into a dangerous round of political violence.
The demonstrations planned for Sunday reflect the growing polarization of the nation since Morsi took power, with the president and his Islamist allies in one camp and seculars, liberals, moderate Muslims and Christians on the other.
There is a sense among opponents and supporters of Morsi that Sunday's rally is a make or break day. The opposition feels empowered by the petition, known as Tamarod, or Rebel, but it offered no proof regarding the figures. If verified, it would mean that nearly double the number of people who voted for Morsi a year ago are now calling for him to step down.
"Honestly, if (Sunday) is not a game changer, we might all just pack up our bags and leave," said Mahmoud Salem, a prominent blogger known by his blog's name Sandmonkey and a vocal critic of the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails.
While violence is likely in such a tense atmosphere, Salem said it would not play out in favor of Morsi supporters because they will be outnumbered.
"They have alienated everybody," he said. Even if no violence breaks out, Salem said civil disobedience is expected in a movement designed now to "save the country."
Morsi's supporters, on the other hand, question the petitions, saying his opponents are led by members of the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak who are trying to orchestrate a comeback and are instigating violence.
"Today and tomorrow will be the real birth of this nation," said Hani Salaheddin, a presenter on the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated TV station Misr 25, predicting that Sunday will bring an end to the questioning of Morsi's mandate.
"Tomorrow is the end of every corrupt person," he said, as the slogan "legitimacy (of the ballot box) is a red line," appeared on the screen.
Already, clashes across a string of cities north of Cairo over the past week have left eight people dead, including an American and a 14-year old, and hundreds injured. Clashes broke out outside offices of the Muslim Brotherhood and its party in at least five different governorates, and rival protests turned into violent confrontations.
Thousands are still taking part in rival sit-ins, in place since Friday in Tahrir Square for opponents and in an east Cairo suburb, Nasr City, for supporters of Morsi.
An Associated Press reporter saw Morsi supporters at a Cairo sit-in doing military-style fitness drills, with some wearing homemade body armor and construction helmets and carrying sticks. They said they had no intention of attacking opposition protesters, and would only act in self-defense or to protect the nearby presidential palace.
Highlighting the nervousness over Sunday's protests, President Barack Obama said the U.S. is working to ensure its embassy and diplomats in Egypt are safe after the 21-year old American was killed in Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city. He urged all parties to refrain from violence and the police and military to show appropriate restraint.
Adding to the tension, eight lawmakers from the country's interim legislature announced their resignation Saturday to protest Morsi's policies. The 270-seat chamber was elected early last year by less than 10 percent of Egypt's eligible voters, and is dominated by Islamists who support Morsi.
A legal adviser to Morsi also announced his resignation late Saturday in protest of what he said was Morsi's insult of judges in his latest speech.
With a sense of doom hanging over the country, Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi last Sunday gave the president and his opponents a week to reach a compromise and warned that the military would intervene to prevent the nation from entering a "dark tunnel."
Morsi had called for national reconciliation talks but offered no specifics. Opposition leaders dismissed the call as cosmetics.