CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's largest opposition grouping said Tuesday that calls by the president for national reconciliation talks come "too late," as activists geared up for a street protest campaign at the end of the month to demand his ouster.
President Mohammed Morsi made the call during a fiery speech Monday over Ethiopia's plans to build a dam on the Blue Nile, a project Cairo claims would jeopardize the flow of the Nile River through Egypt and cause a critical water shortage.
In the speech, Morsi urged Egyptians to unite in a common stand, saying he was "ready to meet anyone to serve the nation's interest" to consolidate the country's internal front in the face of external dangers.
Critics accuse Morsi of using the Nile dam issue to whip up nationalist fervor and undercut the opposition's push for his ouster.
"Such a call is simply lip service on Morsi's part and tasteless public relations," said Khaled Dawoud, spokesman of the National Salvation Front, the main opposition coalition. "It is rather too late after Morsi failed to hold a single serious dialogue in his year in office," Dawoud said. Several opposition parties have boycotted Morsi's earlier efforts at talks, accusing the president of making unilateral decisions that have further polarized society.
Tensions are rising ahead of June 30, when Morsi marks one year as Egypt's first freely elected president. He came to power in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising that toppled his autocratic predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.
The opposition has called for mass demonstrations to mark the anniversary.
The spokesman of Egypt's presidency, Omar Amer, said that the presidency respects freedom of speech and that it is its duty to protect protesters if they are peaceful. He said no special measures will be taken June 30.
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim told police officers on Tuesday that security forces will not enter into confrontations with protesters.
He said that the presidential palace, the planned focal point of protests, will be protected by the Republican Guard forces whose mission is to protect the president. Police will not be deployed there, unlike previous protests at the palace.
Clashes between security forces and protesters over the last two years have left scores dead.
Morsi has substantial opposition from within the police force. Earlier this year, police officers held a nationwide strike demanding that Morsi not use them against the opposition. They denounced what they call the "Brotherhoodization" of the police, by appointing Muslim Brotherhood backers to key posts. The Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful political group, is Morsi's movement.
Some police also charge he has failed to crack down hard enough on militant groups in the Sinai Peninsula. The Monday funeral of a counterterrorism officer killed by militants there turned into a protest, with policemen chanting for Morsi's downfall.
Liberal and secular-minded groups accuse Morsi of not fulfilling his promises to foster an inclusive political process, instead allowing Islamists and his Brotherhood party to monopolize power.
The Brotherhood charges the opposition with trying to unseat Morsi through street violence instead of through the ballot box, insisting their detractors lack grass-roots support.
More recently, hundreds of Egyptian writers, artists, film makers, and Opera House staffers continued their occupation outside the Culture Minister's office. They are calling for his resignation and criticizing his dismissal of top officials, including the head of the Opera House who had been in the post for less than two years.
The minister, Alaa Abdel-Aziz, says the ministry needs new blood and an overhaul after decades of corruption under Mubarak. The protesters claim that Abdel-Aziz is pursuing a cleansing of anti-Brotherhood officials.
Later Tuesday, a group of Adel-Aziz backers rallied in front of his office, challenging protesters camped outside. Security forces were deployed to prevent clashes. The two sides chanted against one another, but joined in singing the national anthem.
The call for Morsi's ouster has also grown into a signature drive known as "Rebel" or "Tamarod," conducted by thousands of young volunteers. The campaign said it has collected more than 7 million signatures, aiming for 15 million by June 30. The signatures have no legal basis to force Morsi's removal, but the campaign has boosted the morale of the country's fragmented opposition.
The Ethiopian dam issue has added to the sense of crisis among Egyptians, compounded by economic woes and a security vacuum.
The $4.2 billion hydroelectric dam, which would be Africa's largest, challenges a colonial-era agreement that gave Egypt and Sudan the lion's share of rights to Nile water. Experts estimate that Egypt could lose as much as 20 percent of its Nile water in the three to five years needed for Ethiopia to fill a massive reservoir.
In Monday's speech, Morsi said Egypt was not calling for war but is willing to confront any threats to its water security.
"If it loses one drop, our blood is the alternative," he said to a noisy crowd of largely Islamist supporters.