CAIRO – Egypt's military chief on Wednesday called on his countrymen to hold mass demonstrations to voice their support for the army and police to deal with potential "violence and terrorism," a move that signals a stepped up campaign against supporters of the ousted Islamist president.
Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, addressing a graduation ceremony for a class of military cadets, urged Egyptians to take to the streets Friday, saying a massive turnout would give him a "mandate" and an "order" to do what is "necessary" to stop bloodshed.
Since the military removed Mohammed Morsi three weeks ago, the ousted president's Islamist supporters have taken to the streets vowing to continue protests until he is restored. Clashes have erupted multiple times between the Islamists and Morsi opponents or security forces.
Each side accuses the other of starting the violence. Dozens have been killed, mostly from the pro-Morsi side, including more than 50 who were killed by troops during clashes at their Cairo sit-in.
Throughout, the military and its allied media have depicted the protesters as a dangerous armed movement. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and its allies say their protests are peaceful. The group accuses troops or thugs hired by the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police, of attacking pro-Morsi rallies, careful to avoid any impression that
At the same time, Islamic militants have stepped up attacks on security forces in Sinai Peninsula since Morsi's fall, killing nearly 20 soldiers and policemen and raising fears of a wave of militant violence.
On Wednesday, suspected militants killed two soldiers and wounded three others in four separate attacks in Sinai.
In the early hours Wednesday, a bomb went off outside the main police headquarters in the Nile Delta city of Mansou6ra, wounding 19 people. Presidential spokesman Ahmed el-Muslemani called the attack an act of terrorism.
The Mansoura bombing is a possible sign that a militant campaign could be spreading to Egypt's heartland, where so far the violence has been restricted to street clashes between the two sides.
El-Sissi's address Wednesday in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria was a strong sign that the top general is the source of real power in Egypt, despite his assertions that authority has been handed completely to the civilian government set up after Morsi's fall.
El-Sissi called for rallies Friday to be as large as those on June 30, when millions took to the streets to demand Morsi's ouster, and July 3, when millions again celebrated his ouster. He promised police and troops would guard the rallies.
The call for demonstrations is likely to be matched by similar calls by Morsi's supporters, raising the specter of violence on Friday.
"On Friday, every honorable and honest Egyptian must come out. Come out and remind the whole world that you have a will and resolve of your own," el-Sissi said. "Please, shoulder your responsibility with me, your army and the police and show your size and steadfastness in the face of what is going on," said the U.S.-trained general.
El-Sissi cautioned that his call for mass demonstrations should not be taken as an invitation to violence.
Commenting on el-Sissi's address, Essam el-Erian, a senior Brotherhood leader, made it clear that the Morsi camp intends to stick to its guns. "There is no solution except rescinding the coup and the return of legitimacy," he told Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr.
Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood on Wednesday boycotted the inaugural session of a reconciliation conference sponsored by interim President Adly Mansour. The session was chaired by Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt's top reform campaigner who was named vice president after Morsi's ouster.
The July 3 coup that ousted Morsi followed four days of mass protests by millions of Egyptians demanding that he step down.
Morsi's supporters insist he must be reinstated, branding his ouster as a coup against democracy. The former president was Egypt's first freely elected leader, but his opponents say he concentrated too much power in his own hands and his Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood.
El-Sissi said on Wednesday that he had no intention, "not a for a second," to go back on a political road map he announced the day he ousted Morsi, which entailed parliamentary and presidential elections by early 2014 and a referendum before that on a new constitution or amendments to the one drafted by Morsi's Islamist backers.
He promised foreign observers from the U.N. and the European Union would be invited to monitor the elections. "We are ready for an election to be supervised by the whole world," he said.
El-Sissi was a member of the military council that ruled Egypt for nearly 17 months after the ouster in 2011 of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. He was the chief of military intelligence at the time. Morsi named him defense minister and military chief in August 2012.
On Wednesday, el-Sissi sharply criticized Morsi and the Brotherhood, repeating assertions he has repeatedly made in the last three weeks that they were driving the country toward civil strife and imposing their own brand of Islam to a mostly resistant population.
He said he had never shied away from speaking his mind to Morsi.
"Don't ever think that I deceived the former president. I repeatedly told him that the army is the army of all Egyptians and stands at an equal distance from all parties. I told him that the army is under his command because he had an electoral mandate," he said.