CAIRO — Egypt's military-backed government offered protection Thursday to supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi who end their two sit-ins, widely seen as a first step toward dispersing the vigils on opposite sides of Cairo.
But the protesters responded defiantly: "Over our dead bodies!"
The standoff underscored the ongoing political crisis since the armed forces toppled Egypt's first democratically elected leader on July 3: thousands in the streets demanding Morsi's reinstatement, a government unable to exert its authority, and recurrent violence that has killed more than 260 people.
Rights groups, activists and politicians from rival camps, fearful of more bloodshed, tried to ward off any use of force, including a suggestion of putting a human chain around the protest sites.
International pressure grew for the interim government to release Morsi and create a process that includes his Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest political faction, which refuses to deal with the new authorities.
Despite a government warning that it would disperse the vigils, the Brotherhood and its supporters announced plans to organize new mass marches today.
Organizers of the sit-ins outside the Rabaah al-Adawiya Mosque in eastern Cairo and a smaller one near Cairo University's main campus in Giza say the protests are signs of the enduring support for the once-dominant Muslim Brotherhood.
Security officials, pro-military media and some residents near the sit-in sites increasingly view the encampments as a menace, with authorities accusing protesters of stockpiling arms, torturing and killing suspected intruders, and scuffling with locals who voice complaints.
While the protesters insist their gatherings are peaceful, the sit-ins have taken on increasingly fatalistic religious overtones, and many of Morsi's supporters have expressed readiness to die for their cause — defending him and Islam.