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Egypt prepares for worst ahead of Sunday protest

Updated at: 06/29/2013 4:35 PM
By BRIAN ROHAN

(AP) CAIRO - As the streets once again fill with protesters eager to oust the president and Islamists determined to keep him in power, Egyptians are preparing for the worst: days or weeks of urban chaos that could turn their neighborhoods into battlegrounds.

Households already beset by power cuts, fuel shortages and rising prices are stocking up on goods in case the demonstrations drag on. Businesses near protest sites are closing until crowds subside. Fences, barricades and walls are going up near homes and key buildings. And local communities are organizing citizen patrols in case security breaks down.

For yet another time since President Mohammed Morsi took office last year, his palace in Cairo’s upscale Heliopolis neighborhood is set to become the focus for popular frustration with his rule. Some protests outside the capital have already turned deadly, and weapons _ including firearms _ have been circulating more openly than in the past.

"We’re worried like all Egyptians that a huge crowd will come, and it will get bloody," said Magdy Ezz, owner of a menswear shop across from the walled complex, a blend of Middle Eastern and neoclassical architecture. Besides ordinary roll-down storm shutters, storefronts on the street are sealed off with steel panels.

"We just hope it will be peaceful. But it could be a second revolution," he said. "If it lasts, we’ll have to keep the store closed. But it’s not like business has been booming here anyway, especially since the problems last year."

Last winter, the area saw some of Cairo’s deadliest street violence since Egypt’s 2011 uprising, with Islamists attacking a sit-in, anarchists throwing gasoline bombs, and police savagely beating protesters.

Morsi’s opponents aim to bring out massive crowds starting Sunday, saying the country is fed up with Islamist misrule that has left the economy floundering and security in shambles. They say they have collected 22 million signatures _ compared to around 13 million voters who elected Morsi _ calling for him to step down, and they hope the turnout will push him to do just that.

Morsi’s Islamist allies say they will defend the mandate of the country’s first freely elected president, some with their "souls and blood" if necessary, while hard-liners have vowed to "smash" the protests.

On Friday, thousands of Morsi supporters launched a counterdemonstration, which some plan to continue as an open-ended sit-in at a mosque near the presidential palace _ the endpoint of the main protest march two days later.

Both camps say they intend to be peaceful, but demonstrations could rapidly descend into violence _ especially if the two sides meet. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group has said five of its members were killed in clashes with protesters in Nile Delta provinces over the past days, and Brotherhood offices have been attacked in several cities. A total of eight people, including one American, have been killed in protests this past week. The nation’s highest religious authority, Al-Azhar, has warned against "civil war."

At the Brotherhood’s national headquarters in Cairo’s Muqattam district, workers added a final layer of mortar to a brick wall topped with grating to reinforce the main gate. A bank on the corner was completely boarded up. Some fear protesters could descend on the neighborhood to attack the headquarters, as happened last spring when supporters and opponents of the president fought street battles that left 200 wounded.

"The police have to get this place secured. It’s their job and I’m sure they will," said Hadi Saad, a designer who lives around the corner from the headquarters. "The demonstrations will be very big across the country, no matter if (Morsi) stays or goes, so we should be prepared here as well."

Other neighbors said they don’t expect a repeat of violence in the area, a hill overlooking the rest of the city. Only a handful of police patrolled the neighborhood ahead of the weekend protests, corralling a 100-car queue to the main avenue’s gas station.

Engineer Hasan Farag, also a neighbor, said residents were "hoping for the best." Some have begun to resent the Brotherhood’s presence, however, and a petition to force the offices out has been circulating.

"The neighborhood is divided _ some don’t mind the headquarters being here, others do," Saad said.

Security has been redoubled at the presidential palace in Heliopolis. Walls set up last year still block some traffic access, and curved concrete slabs designed to prevent climbing now protect the main gates. Shipping containers also line much of the perimeter, and nearby apartment buildings have blocked off their parking lots and side streets with barbed wire. On Friday, authorities built a new wall of concrete blocks to surround the complex.

Peter Soliman, a communications student who lives in the neighborhood, said most residents don’t know what to expect.

"Of course, parents are worried about their children going out to demonstrate by the palace, especially if the Brotherhood shows up," he said. "People fear things will turn bloody and divide the country."

Other Heliopolis residents and protest organizers say neighborhood watch groups are already being formed.

In the city center, concrete walls continue to block off the Interior Ministry and southern access routes to Tahrir Square, epicenter of the uprising that overthrew longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. At the weekend, protesters gathered by the thousands at the square, saying they plan to dig in for a protracted conflict.

The nearby Semiramis Hotel is taking no chances, even though Tahrir is expected to be a sideshow compared to Sunday’s march on the palace. The site of repeated clashes between stone-throwing youths and riot police this past year, the luxury hotel has just finished fortifying itself with a spiked metal fence topped with razor-sharp blades.

To the south, in the leafy Garden City neighborhood _ an area that has sometimes seen spillover violence from Tahrir _ some residents were securing their homes.

Metalworker Sameh Haddad used an arc welder to put the final touches on an apartment building’s new wrought iron gate before hurrying to other appointments. "For once, business has been great," he said.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)