CAIRO -- Egypt's military-backed government offered protection yesterday to supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi to 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 continuing political crisis since the armed forces toppled the 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 mass marches today, dubbed "Egypt Against the Coup." 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.
But mass rallies called by the military leader, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, on July 26 showed that a large segment of Egypt's population backs the armed forces' actions against Morsi.