CAIRO (AP) -- Protesters holding sticks and wearing helmets and makeshift body armor stand behind mounds of sandbags, tires and brick walls. They change guards every two hours to ensure they stay alert.
With Egypt's military-backed government signaling a crackdown is imminent, supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi are taking no chances with security at their two protest camps in Cairo.
On Wednesday, the Cabinet ordered the police to break up the sit-ins, saying they pose an "unacceptable threat" to national security.
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said the order will be carried out in gradual steps according to instructions from prosecutors. "I hope they resort to reason" and leave without authorities having to move in, he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Ahmed Sobaie, spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice party, derided the Cabinet decision as "paving the way for another massacre."
"The police state is getting ready to commit more massacres against the innocent, unarmed civilians holding sit-ins for the sake of legitimacy," he said.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf appealed to the military-led government to avoid violence. "We have continued to urge the interim government officials and security forces to respect the right of peaceful assembly," she said. "That obviously includes sit-ins."
Organizers are portraying the sit-ins outside the Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque in eastern Cairo and a smaller one across the city near Cairo University's main campus as evidence of an enduring support base for Morsi's once-dominant Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood has so far refused to cooperate with the country's interim leaders, whom it calls "traitors," or participate in a military-backed fast-track transition plan to return to a democratically elected government by early next year. Instead it tries to keep thousands of supporters camped out in tents decorated with photos of Morsi, occupying a cross-shaped intersection facing the mosque.
Authorities have already cracked down on the organization, arresting Morsi and other senior leaders. On Wednesday, Egyptian prosecutors referred three top leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood to trial for allegedly inciting the killing of at least eight protesters last month outside the group's Cairo headquarters.
Security forces also have killed more than 130 protesters during clashes outside the camps on two occasions.
At least six makeshift gates have been erected as the sole entry points to the Rabaah encampment, with dozens of protesters standing guard, checking IDs, searching bags and patting down visitors.
Once through the gates, posters with photos of Morsi and slogans calling him the "legitimate president" are plastered on tents, corners and light poles while giant loudspeakers play some of his fiery speeches and women chant "Morsi is my president."
The overwhelming majority of the protesters echo the demands of the Brotherhood leaders still free: Reinstate Morsi, reverse all measures taken by the military, including the suspension of the disputed constitution and the disbanding of the Islamist-controlled legislature. Only if these demands are met, they insist, would they halt the two Cairo sit-ins and the demonstrations, which has attracted crowds of up to 20,000.
But privately, the Rabaah protesters acknowledge that their sit-in is their last bargaining chip in the face of a fierce onslaught by the military and loyal media that label the encampment as a hideout for terrorists. Islamic militants also have been stepping up attacks against security forces in lawless areas in the Sinai Peninsula, raising fears that extremists could exploit the anger over Morsi's removal to spread insurgency.
"We will not have a life outside of here," Shawki Hamed, a schoolteacher in his early 40s, said while squatting cross-legged inside one of the hundreds of tents now dotting the site. "We have seen with our own eyes the way they manipulate the truth. They attack us, then portray us as terrorists. ... If Morsi is not back, our life will be a series of humiliations and fabricated charges."
The comments reflect the depth of feeling among Morsi's supporters and the Brotherhood's continued ability to mobilize its base with long-honed organizational skills that combine pragmatism and religious piety.
The fundamentalist group has long been one of the most powerful political forces in Egypt, even during its decades in the opposition to autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak, himself ousted in a popular uprising in 2011.
But after a series of election wins, including Morsi's presidential victory last year, the group has fallen from popular favor. Morsi was ousted in a July 3 military coup after millions took to the streets to call for him to step down because he granted too much influence to the Brotherhood and failed to implement much-needed social and economic reforms.