BY TONY G. GABRIEL, The Associated Press
CAIRO (AP) — Tens of thousands of supporters of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood massed in main squares in several cities on Friday, waving pictures of Mohammed Morsi and chanting that the head of the military is a "traitor," stepping up denunciations of the army over its removal of the country's first freely elected president.
Islamists vow they can continue their campaign of street rallies as long as necessary to force the reinstitution of Morsi. But at the same time, the new military-backed administration has intensified its crackdown on the leadership of Morsi's Brotherhood, starting criminal investigations against Morsi and issuing arrest warrants on a host of others.
At the main Islamist rally in Cairo, the crowd poured into a large boulevard in front of a main mosque where Morsi supporters have been camped out for two weeks.
"We are ready to stay for a month, two months, a year or even two years," an ultraconservative Salafi cleric, Safwat Hegazi, told protesters from a state set up in front of the Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque. "Some women proposed to bring ovens to bake sweets for the Eid," he said, referring to the festive holiday that marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, when began on Wednesday.
Their sit-in at the mosque has taken on a more dug-in presence — with military troops staying a relative distance away of about a kilometer (half-mile) to avoid direct frictions so far.
Tents have been erected, toilets set up with brick walls in front of them to give some privacy. As on other days, the crowd has filled up a major intersection in front of the mosque and some ways down the boulevards, with supporters travelling from the provinces to join in.
During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset, which usually cuts down on activity during the day — particularly outdoors in warm summer temperatures. During the daytime fast Friday, some at the rally rested in their tents, reading the Quran or sleeping.
"We have a daily routine of prayers and Quran recitations, then marches around the sit-in," said Hassan al-Ghandoor, a tailor from the Nile Delta who came to the rally on July 3, the day Morsi was ousted, and hasn't left it since.
"The level of spirituality of this place helps us put up with the daily difficulties," he said. "We are here for an objective and we will stay here until it is accomplished."
Thousands more rallied across the Nile River in Cairo's sister city Giza, and Morsi supporters held a string of marches around the capital, converging on the main rallies. Similar protesters were held rallies in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and several other cities.
Still, the Brotherhood and other Islamists face the question of how to step up their campaign. So far, they have succeeded in pulling out the strong numbers of their own ranks — but there has been little sign of a wider portion of the public joining. Morsi supporters have touted their campaign as a defense of democracy against a military coup that removed an elected leader, warning that the army is turning the country back into dictatorship.
But at the same time, many of its leaders also engage in the rhetoric of political Islamist movements more appealing to their base than other sectors of the public. The four days of protests demanding Morsi's removal, which began June 30, brought out millions around the country — though since his fall those rallies have tapered.
The new administration, meanwhile, is pushing ahead quickly with its transition plans, in part to create a reality and force the Brotherhood to accept it and to show that the country is moving toward democracy. At the same time, authorities are pulling out multiple allegations aimed at showing Morsi's supporters are linked to violence and militancy.
On Friday, some protesters marched from Rabaa al-Adawiya in eastern Cairo toward the nearby Republican Guard headquarters, where on Monday troops killed more than 50 Morsi supporters in clashes at an Islamist sit-in. The military says the Islamists sparked the clashes by shooting at troops, though the protesters say the troops attacked them without provocation.
A number of Brotherhood leaders with arrest warrants against them are permanently staying at a medical center connected to the Rabaa al-Adawiya, Brotherhood spokesman Ahmed Aref told The Associated Press, though he underlined that they are not hiding from arrest. Among them are Mohammed el-Beltagy, a leadership figure, and the deputy head of the Brotherhood's political party Essam el-Erian — though Aref said the Brotherhood's spiritual leader, Mohammed Badie, is not at the site. Aref said he did not know where Badie was.
Morsi has been held in an undisclosed military facility since the coup against him on July 3, sparked after four days of massive protests by millions nationwide demanding his removal.
Five other Brotherhood leaders are also in detention on various charges, and 10 others — including Badie —have arrest warrants against them on accusations of triggering clashes on Monday. More than 50 of Morsi's supporters were killed in those clashes, outside a headquarters of the Republican Guards.
Gehad el-Haddad, the group's spokesman, said in a message posted on his Twitter account that those in detention are "denied visitation, or delivery of clothes, food. All held in solitary confinement."
A day earlier, prosecutors said they will investigate allegations that Morsi and 30 others Brotherhood leaders escaped from prison during the 2011 revolution with help from the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Anger at the military was rife at Friday's rallies. Protesters carried posters depicting army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi with blood coming out of his mouth and emblazoned with "traitor." Some banners appeared to be addressing foreign media, with English slogans like, "legitimacy is a red line" — underlining that Morsi is the country's legitimate president.
"Did el-Sissi sell his religion cheaply?" one speaker on the Rabaa al-Adawiya stage asked, and the crowd chanted back, "Leave, el-Sissi."
"We are designated martyrs," the speaker said. "We call on el-Sissi and those who participated in this grand treason to repent."
Speaking to the AP at the square, al-Haddad said their rally was growing, a continuation of the 2011 revolution against autocrat Hosni Mubarak, which had been centered at Cairo's Tahrir Square, across town from the mosque.
"This is exactly what we did in Tahrir during the revolution. We are doing it here," he said, adding that the Brotherhood's organization can "keep functioning under a repressive police state." He said even people not participating were helping by bringing food to the rally to break the fast.s
"Numbers are increasing, and more locations in Cairo will come," he said. "We are not talking in weeks we are talking in months."
Mostafa Youssef, 27-year-old-cleric described the military-backed interim President Adly Mansour and his administration as "puppets while the real power is in the hand of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. Civilians are just a facade."
Protesters in helmets and home-made body shields and sticks, formed human chains guarding the square, with some self-searching visitors.
"This is a coup," said a 20-year-old Ahmed Ismail. "We are going back 100 years to a police state and if we shut up now we won't have any voice in the future," he added.
Still, officials in the sole Islamist party that backed Morsi's removal, the Salafi Al-Nour, argued that the Brotherhood had to accept reality, and said the party was reaching out through mediators to try to convince it.
"I know the Muslim Brotherhood has stamina," said Amro Mekki, a senior Al-Nour figure. "We can disagree on whether this is a coup or a revolution, but there is a reality on the ground and we have to deal with it not in a negative way."
He said the Brotherhood needs to move into an opposition position within the new system.
"The thing is, whoever moved the street is the one who takes over power. Now the military is in charge, ruling the country, and the test will be to withdraw powers from the military to civilians."
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.