Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, BEN HUBBARD and KAREEM FAHIM
Published: June 30, 2013
CAIRO — Faced with a wave of increasingly violent protests demanding his ouster, President Mohamed Morsi declared this weekend that he was still very confident he would serve out his term as Egypt’s first democratically elected head of state.
“It has been a difficult, very difficult year, and I think the coming years will also be difficult,” Mr. Morsi said in an interview with The Guardian, a British newspaper, that was released Sunday a year after his inauguration — a day his opponents are marking with massive street protests that they vow will drive him from office.
During the remaining three years of his first term, Mr. Morsi said, “I hope that I will all the time be doing my best to fulfill the needs of the Egyptian people.”
Thousands of Mr. Morsi’s opponents and supporters began massing in the streets on Sunday, hours before planned marches to Tahrir Square and the presidential palace. The military sent helicopters flying low over the square on Sunday — a demonstration of power that it has been used on other occasions, including before its removal of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Gathering near the presidential palace, thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group backing Mr. Morsi, had armed themselves with billy clubs and long lengths of tubing as well as protective vests, shields and helmets.
Many said they fear the police — left largely intact since the overthrow of Mr. Mubarak — would fail to defend the palace or might join an assault. “If there is treason, we are here,” said Ahmed Abdel Azeez, 38, a Brotherhood member who began camping outside a mosque near the palace on Friday.
The normally clogged streets of Cairo were all but deserted Sunday, the beginning of the workweek, as businesses closed and residents took refuge. The airports were packed with people attempting to get out of the city and worried about a potential shut down.
Outside of Cairo, protesters had blockaded or chained shut government offices in the capitals of several provinces across the Nile Delta, state media reported. Protesters also blocked several transit ways, including the major highways and railways connecting Cairo and Alexandria.
Officials of the Muslim Brotherhood said several offices had been set fire or ransacked overnight, adding to a series of such attacks in recent days. More than a half dozen people have died and several hundred have been injured in recent days during skirmishes leading up to Sunday’s protests.
Much of the focus on Sunday will be on the government’s own security forces. The police are in more or less open revolt against President Morsi. The interior ministry has already said its officers will not protect the offices of the Brotherhood or any other political party, citing a lack of manpower, and in recent days, Egyptian news organizations have posted video footage of armed and uniformed police joining street fights, seemingly against members of the Brotherhood defending an Alexandria office.
When protesters closed the highway connecting the Delta towns of Monsoura and Damietta on Sunday, state media reported that a group of police officers joined the blockade chanting, “Revolution until victory!” and “The People and the Police are one Hand!”
The military, which seized power for more than a year after Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, has tried to strike a tone of neutrality, urging reconciliation of the feuding political factions, but at the same time declaring itself ready to intervene to protect the national security.
In the interview with The Guardian, Mr. Morsi acknowledged for the first time that he was not told ahead of time about a statement issued last week by the defense minister, General Abdul-Fattah el Sisi, in which he urged the president and his opponents to come together before Sunday’s protests and said the military would “intervene to keep Egypt from sliding into a dark tunnel of conflict, internal fighting, criminality, accusations of treason, sectarian discord and the collapse of state institutions.”
Many in the opposition saw the statement as a sign of distance between the generals and the president, or as an indication that if Sunday’s protests were large enough — or perhaps violent enough — the military would take over once again. Cheers rose from the crowd when the military helicopters circled Tahrir Square on Sunday.
Still, although Mr. Morsi acknowledged that the defense minister had spoken without coordinating his statement with the president, he said he retained full confidence in General Sisi. “We constantly talk together over time,” Mr. Morsi said in the Guardian interview, but “we can’t restrict every single word announced by officials in this country.”
Mr. Morsi said the military had suffered during its time of the country after Mr. Mubarak and had no desire to return. “They’re busy now with the affairs of the army itself,” Mr. Morsi said.
As protests began Sunday, however, the military continued to give out ambiguous signals. “All units” were at “high alert,” ready “to move ‘on the moment’ when something urgent or a threat to national security occurs,” Egyptian state media reported, citing an unidentified military source.
“The official military source clarified that the most recent instructions given to soldiers and officers is to protect the will of the people without bias to any side at the expense of the other, especially as the political forces have not reached any formula of consensus,” the Web site of the flagship state newspaper, Al Ahram, reported.
In recent weeks, Mr. Morsi’s government has extended and refortified the walls of the presidential palace that serves as his office in anticipation of an attack during Sunday’s protests. During the interview with The Guardian, Mr. Morsi was working out of to another alternate facility, Quba Palace, the birthplace of the former King Farouk. State media reported that the prime minister, Hisham Qandil, was also working out of an alternate office for security reasons.
In the same interview, Mr. Morsi acknowledged more explicitly than before that he had erred in his “constitutional declaration” last fall putting his own power above the authority of the courts until passage of a charter. Although he said he meant to block the courts from dissolving the constitutional assembly, the move struck many as authoritarian, and it set off the waves of protests have built up to Sunday demonstrations.
“It contributed to some kind of misconception in society,” Morsi said in the interview. His advisers have privately acknowledged deep regrets over the declaration, although they argue that subsequent rulings have confirmed that the high court — full of justices appointed from Mr. Mubarak — was indeed poised to dissolve the assembly.
But Mr. Morsi repeatedly blamed the old Mubarak bureaucracy and elites — “the deep state and the remnants of the old regime” — for the protests. He insisted that those who profited under Mr. Mubarak had paid hired thugs to attack his supporters and the Muslim Brotherhood.
“They have money, and they got this money from corruption,” he said. “They used this corrupt money to pull back the regime, and pull back the old regime into power. They pay this corrupt money to thugs, and then violence takes place.”
And he argued that if he gave in to the demands for his exit, it would only prolong the chaos of Egypt’s transition. If an elected president resigned under pressure from the street, “there will be people or opponents opposing the new president too, and a week or a month later, they will ask him to step down,” Mr. Morsi said.