CAIRO (AP) — Political allies of Egypt's military lined up behind its call for huge rallies Friday to show support for the country's top general, pushing toward a collision with Islamist opponents demanding the return of the nation's ousted president.
But there was widespread uncertainty over the army's intentions — and worry that the military is whipping up a dangerous populist fervor.
Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who ousted Egypt's elected president on July 3, took many by surprise when he announced this week that he wanted people to take to the streets in large numbers on Friday to give him a popular mandate to take the necessary measures against "violence and terrorism."
El-Sissi's call was widely interpreted as a prelude to a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which the ousted Mohammed Morsi hails, and other Islamists who have been camped out for about a month at sit-ins in Cairo and elsewhere calling for Morsi's reinstatement.
That has hiked fears of a violent confrontation. Islamists also plan pro-Morsi rallies on Friday, raising the possibility of street clashes, as has happened repeatedly in recent weeks.
Islamists on Thursday lashed out at the military, saying el-Sissi's call signals a plan to crush what they insist are their peaceful protests. The spiritual leader of the Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, hiked up his rhetoric against el-Sissi, saying ousting Morsi was a worse crime than if the general had destroyed the Kaaba, Islam's holiest site — an attempt to fire up the religious fervor in the pro-Morsi camp ahead of Friday's rallies.
On the other side, state TV and pro-military private networks were doing their part to back el-Sissi: They announced that the wildly popular mini-series shown during the current holy month of Ramadan will not be aired Friday to ensure that large numbers go out onto the streets. Some of them were airing patriotic songs.
Still unclear is what exactly el-Sissi meant by seeking a mandate against violence — and how far the military would go. The most explosive move would be if troops were to eventually try to clear major Islamist sit-ins. The largest has been outside Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, where crowds some nights have grown to tens of thousands.
A more limited move would be for troops to take tougher action against any sign of Morsi supporters engaged in violence. Some Islamist protesters have been seen with weapons — though their opponents have been as well, and each accuses the other of sparking clashes. Another possibility is that the military would detain Brotherhood and other Islamist leaders who already face arrest warrants.
On Thursday military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said el-Sissi's call was "not a threat to any specific political group." He said the military respects peaceful protests.
But he said any violence or terrorism will be "dealt with decisively and with force" — signaling a likely tough approach on any sign of violence, which Islamists' opponents have largely blamed on the pro-Morsi camp.
He said a national reconciliation conference and a system of transitional justice, called for by interim military-backed President Adly Mansour, are the only way out of Egypt's current standoff.
The military dropped leaflets on Morsi supporters outside the Rabaah al-Adawiya Mosque, trying to reassure them about their safety.
"We are not against you so don't be against us. Don't raise your weapons in the face of your brothers, don't destroy, don't burn, and let us all be together against killing, violence and terrorism," the leaflets said.
What confounded many, however, is why el-Sissi felt he needed a popular cover if he only intends to stop violence. As the military's chief and defense minister, el-Sissi would have been within his rights to preserve security.
For some, even in the anti-Morsi camp, his call raised suspicion that the military will take extra-ordinary measures in a crackdown, highlighting worries over past abuses by troops. Some saw it as a sign el-Sissi was trying to gauge his appeal for a possible presidential run.
Mustafa Shawky, a leftist activist who was among the early voices that articulated the demands of the 2011 uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak, spoke of being caught between worries about "military fascism" and "religious fascism" — referring to Islamist rule under Morsi.
While the military was needed to remove Morsi, he said, el-Sissi's call for the rallies undermines the army's stance that the ouster was not a coup.