Egyptians and their security forces prepared for demonstrations on Sunday that may determine their future, two years after people power toppled a dictator and ushered in a democracy crippled by bitter divisions.
Waving national flags, thousands gathered on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, cradle of the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak. They hope that, after the working day, millions will rally across the country to unseat President Mohamed Mursi - exactly a year since the Islamist became Egypt’s first freely elected leader.
Across a capital eerily quiet for the start of the working week, Mursi supporters have also congregated - by a mosque not far from the suburban presidential palace. Liberal protest organisers plan to mount a sit-in outside from Sunday evening.
There was none of the street violence seen in the past week. Cairo’s security chief said over 140 known troublemakers had been rounded up in the past day. Some were found with weapons.
Interviewed by a British newspaper, Mursi repeated his determination to ride out what he sees as an undemocratic attack on his electoral legitimacy. But he also offered to revise the new, Islamist-inspired constitution, saying clauses on religious authority, which fueled liberal resentment, were not his choice.
He made a similar offer last week, after the head of the army issued a strong call for politicians to compromise. But the opposition dismissed it as too little to late. They hope Mursi will resign in the face of large numbers on the streets. Some also seem to believe the army might force the president’s hand.
An economic crisis, deepened by political paralysis, has encouraged some to take to the streets in protest. But many others fear renewed unrest will only make matters worse.
Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood can hope protests fizzle out like previous outbursts. If they do not, some form of compromise, possibly arbitrated by the army, may be on the cards.
Both sides insist they plan no violence but accuse the other - and agents provocateurs from the old regime - of planning more of the street fighting that has killed several people, including an American student, and wounded hundreds over the past week.
Helicopter gunships flew over Cairo. The U.S.-equipped army, though showing little sign of wanting power, warns it may step in if deadlocked politicians let violence slip out of control.
U.S. President Barack Obama called for dialogue and warned trouble in the biggest Arab nation could unsettle an already turbulent Middle East. Washington has evacuated non-essential personnel and reinforced security at its diplomatic missions.