CAIRO, Egypt – Egypt made frantic preparations Thursday for Yasser Arafat's funeral service, planning a high-security ceremony at a military club in a northern Cairo suburb, where the Palestinian leader's body will be borne on a horse-drawn carriage.
The Galaa Club (search), a compound that includes a hospital, mosque and social club for armed forces officers, will be the site of prayers and a farewell ceremony, security and presidential officials said.
Presidential spokesman Maged Abdel Fattah told The Associated Press the "military funeral" would be held at 11 a.m. local time (4 a.m. EST) Friday.
The service originally was planned for a mosque on the grounds of Cairo's international airport but was switched to the military club for logistical reasons.
The funeral plans reflected the security concerns of Egyptian officials, who sought a venue for condolence calls that limited any risk of an outpouring of popular emotion that might flare out of control in the Arab world's most populous country of 70 million.
The country has not held a state funeral for 23 years, since that of President Anwar Sadat (search) in 1981.
Egypt stepped in to host the service for Arafat, who died early Thursday, because it would be politically difficult for Arab leaders to travel to the Israeli-controlled Palestinian territories for a ceremony there.
Dignitaries expected for the service include King Abdullah II (search) of Jordan, President Thabo Mbeki (search) of South Africa, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (search) of Brazil and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (search) of Britain. The United States will be represented by Assistant Secretary of State William Burns (search).
Heads of state from Yemen and Algeria also are expected, said Majdi Khaldi, an aide to Palestinian foreign minister.
Security was put on maximum alert around the airport area, according to Egyptian officials. Plainclothes officers also took up positions elsewhere — atop high-rise apartment buildings, mosques, and Cairo's main train station. A heavier than usual police presence was seen in downtown Tahrir Square.
The Galaa Club is located in the northern Cairo suburb of Heliopolis (search), home to many Egyptian military institutions, clubs and academies, as well as the home and official palaces of President Hosni Mubarak (search), and the international airport.
"Galaa" means "Evacuation" and it marks the British departure from Egypt in 1953.
Gen. Abdel Fattah Badran, a senior airport official overseeing funeral preparations, said Arafat's body was expected to arrive in Cairo late Thursday.
Earlier in the day, dozens of workers busily refurbished King Faisal bin Abdel-Aziz Mosque at the international airport, installing new carpeting, cleaning and repairing chandeliers, and manicuring the lawn.
"We expected [Arafat's death], but we also hurt in our hearts when we heard it, because this man is a symbol for all. ...He fought for rights, and in Egypt, we appreciate that," Badran said.
The venue was moved so the ceremony would be closer to the hospital on the Galaa Club's grounds where Arafat's body would rest overnight, Badran said.
"The preparations are ongoing; only the place has changed," he said in a telephone interview after a security meeting for the funeral.
Streets near the airport will be closed during the funeral procession, and Badran said airport travelers will be diverted to a nearby ring road. He said no flight schedule disruptions were expected.
After the service, Arafat's body will be flown to the West Bank from the military airport just behind the Galaa Club, Badran said.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo warned Americans to avoid areas where spontaneous protests might occur, including Tahrir Square, a traditional site of demonstrations.
Security forces also were clustered under downtown overpasses near the square, and a large photograph of Mubarak beneath one bridge — once vandalized and repaired when a past demonstration got out of hand — had been taken down.
Palestinian officials began arriving in Cairo late Wednesday to discuss funeral arrangements.
Egypt announced three days of mourning, and the Cairo-based Arab League announced seven, flying its flag at half-staff. A condolence book would be available for signing at the Arab League beginning Friday for four days, league spokesman Hossam Zaki said.
There had been speculation the Arab League, the pan-Arab organization based in downtown Cairo, would host the funeral. But Zaki said Egypt "is the country closest to Yasser Arafat throughout his history. It's the country that stood by him until his last moments."
Arafat had claimed he was born in Jerusalem, but researchers say his birthplace was Cairo. He studied and started his revolutionary career in Cairo.
Egypt is a major player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, having signed a 1979 peace treaty with Israel and often mediating between Palestinians and the Israeli government. Hosting the funeral service will be an important step toward forging ties with Arafat's successors.