CAIRO – Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood staged a massive rally in Cairo on Friday to show support for President Mohammed Morsi – and to issue a warning to those who hope to push him out of office.
The crowds gathered in an effort to show that Morsi supporters outnumber those who oppose him in advance of opposition demonstrations planned for June 30.
Opposition “Rebel!” alliance representatives say they have gathered more than 15 million signatures – more than the 13 million votes that elected Morsi a year ago – demanding he step down and calling for new elections. They plan to present their petition on June 30, the day that marks one year since Morsi began his time in office that has been plagued by division and economic problems.
"I came to support the legitimacy of President Morsi and the Islamic project," said Mohamed Yahia, a 57-year-old civil engineer.
Morsi's Islamist supporters insisted Friday that they will only resort to force on June 30 if the anti-Morsi camp attacks them or the presidency.
However, one man chanted ominously to a cheering group of onlookers: "For the sake of God, we have risen. We are martyrs for religion."
The president and the nation are bracing for what are widely expected to be massive and violent protests a week from Sunday.
Just two week ago, Morsi derided opposition demands for early elections as, "absurd and illegitimate.”
But in the interim, he has taken measures that suggest he is taking the latest challenge to his rule very seriously. He held a series of high level meetings to gain the support of the military and clergy – but he seems to have emerged empty handed.
A day after he met with the defense minister, a military source told the state-run news agency that the military is "committed to legitimacy unless it contradicts the will of the people and their vision of change and reform."
Morsi also sat down with the highest Sunni Muslim authority, Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, and with the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II.
After the meeting, Al-Tayyeb issued a statement saying "peaceful opposition to the ruler is legitimate," but "armed opposition would be considered mutiny."
The Coptic pope has remained silent, but senior Coptic leaders said they will join the protests.
The president has tried to energize his base in the Muslim Brotherhood and forge stronger ties with extremist Islamist groups. In a televised address to a packed stadium of cheering supporters last week, Morsi shocked the nation by cutting diplomatic ties with Syria. Hardliners have been calling for jihad to combat the Syrian regime and Shiite fighters. Morsi’s foreign affairs advisor also said last week that Egyptians were free to fight in Syria and would not be held accountable by the state upon their return.
The president has also tried to extend control over outlying provinces by appointing 17 new governors, including seven from his own party and a member of the hardline Islamic Group.
In a flurry of press conferences and statements, Morsi’s ministers have tried to quell public anger at rising prices, daily electricity cuts and the long neglected and lawless Sinai Peninsula. The minister of supply launched a campaign to reduce prices on staple foods during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The ministry of electricity and energy announced the end of months of power cuts, and the prime minister rolled out a newly approved $647 million dollar plan to develop the Sinai.
But most worrying, analysts say, is an atmosphere of intimidation that has been quietly ignored by the presidency. Islamic Group leaders have equated protests against Morsi to "a war against Islam," and a radical preacher called those who oppose Morsi "heretics.”
In his address to supporters at Cairo’s stadium, Morsi himself issued a warning. "Some think they can undermine the stability that grows daily or undermine the resolve of people who have made their will clear…We will deal with them decisively and there will never be a place for them among us," he said.
"We promise them, they will be crushed on this day," Tareq al-Zomor, founder of the political wing of the radical Islamic Group told the crowd of thousands at Friday’s rally. He spent 30 years in jail for his role in killing former President Anwar Sadat and was freed only after the next Egyptian leader, Hosni Mubarak, fell in 2011.
"June 30 will be a knockout blow against those who are calling for chaos,” said al-Zomor.
NBC News' Taha Belal and Reuters contributed to this report.