Thousands of supporters and opponents of Egypt's embattled Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, held rival sit-ins in separate parts of Cairo yesterday on the eve of opposition-led mass protests aimed at forcing him from power.
It follows days of deadly clashes in cities across the country that left at least seven dead, including an American student, and two others in Alexandria. And expectations of further violence today – during rallies that the opposition says will bring millions on to the streets – has fed a sense of impending doom in the country.
Mr Morsi's opponents, fed up with Islamist misrule they say has left the economy floundering and security in a shambles, claim to have collected 22 million signatures – around seven million more than the number of voters who elected Mr Morsi – calling for him to step down.
Both opponents and supporters of the president say they intend to be peaceful, but demonstrations could descend into violence, especially if the two sides meet. The Presidential palace, one site where the opposition plans to gather, has been surrounded by concrete walls.
Cairo was uncharacteristically quiet on Saturday as the city braced for the opposition protests. Many residents are staying home, while some left for safer locations elsewhere in the country. For several days members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that helped propel Mr Morsi to power, and the president's opponents have clashed in cities in the Nile Delta, while on Friday as least five Brotherhood offices across the country were ransacked and torched.
With expectations of violence high, the military has dispatched troops to reinforce its bases on the outskirts of cities expected to be flashpoints.
In Cairo, additional forces were deployed to military facilities in the suburbs. The army is also moving troops to help police at the city's prisons to prevent a repeat of the jail breaks seen during the chaos of the 2011 uprising.