Supporters and opponents of President Mohamed Morsi clashed across Egypt today as they steel themselves for mass demonstrations that are being hyped as one of the largest challenges yet to the Islamist president’s rule. The violence of the past few days make it more likely that Sunday, when the crowds are expected to be even larger, will take a dark turn.
Egypt’s leading religious authority called for calm as rival demonstrations on opposite sides of Cairo drew hundreds of thousands and bloody clashes in Alexandria, Daqahliya, Gharbiya, Sharqiya brought the official death toll after a week of simmering tensions to five.
"Vigilance is required to ensure we do not slide into civil war," Al Azhar University declared in a statement which was broadly supportive of Egypt’s Islamist president's offer of dialogue earlier this week.
The sentiments echo those of the country’s military, who said earlier this week that they were ready to prevent the country from going down the "dark tunnel" of internal conflict. Army tanks were deployed across Egyptian cities on Wednesday to secure state institutions as the protests burgeoned.
Experts say today’s violence suggests that bloody clashes are inevitable during mass demonstrations called for June 30, the one-year anniversary of Morsi's rule. But those who are planning to go out on the streets this weekend say this is not the case, and argue instead that Mr. Morsi’s removal would represent a peaceful resolution to a crisis of deepening political polarization.
In Alexandria today, one man was killed in clashes near the Muslim Brotherhood's local offices. According to the state MENA news agency, 60 more were injured. Unconfirmed reports from social media suggest that a number of other Islamist political offices were attacked this week in the country’s Delta governorates, north of Cairo.
Addressing a crowd of tens of thousands who had turned out to support President Morsi in Cairo’s Nasr District, Muslim cleric Sawfat Hegazy railed at the opposition for "using deadly force against Islamists and Brotherhood members.”
"The president must use an iron fist to reply to such attacks,” he said.
Protesters said they were vehemently opposed to the Tamarod ("Rebel") movement, the petition campaign which has led calls for Sunday’s anti-Morsi demonstration, and claims to have collected over 15 million signatures in favor of Morsi’s resignation.
The petitions hold no legal force, but they reveal widespread discontent at his government almost a year after the president took power and the signatories hope that alone will be enough to prompt Morsi to step down.
“They told us they had 15 million signatures,” says Yasser Abdelazim, a member of Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party. “If this is the case, they can participate in elections, change the parliament, change the president.” An elected president should only be removed via the ballot box, he said.
But just 8.5 miles away in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, protesters who rallied ahead of protests planned for June 30 insisted that their demonstrations will go ahead as planned and that Morsi’s removal was the only way forward for the country. Although only a couple thousand gathered there during the day, crowds swelled as the evening drew in.
With anticipation mounting, opposition figures say that they expect an impressive turnout two days from now. “I expect to see millions of Egyptians come out on the streets,” says Khaled Dawoud, a spokesman for the National Salvation Front, Egypt's coalition of secularist opposition parties.
“[Morsi] is refusing to acknowledge the number of problems that have come from his policies and the religious rhetoric of his group, and this makes me and our supporters more personally committed to go out on the streets on June 30th. We will be peaceful; we will wait it out.”
But experts warn that the clashes witnessed this week are creating a dynamic that makes violence increasingly likely.
“Expectation of violence itself can increase the likelihood of it happening,” says Elijah Zarwan, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “People from both sides are coming to the streets expecting that the other side is going to be violent, and that raises the emotional pitch.”
“The president’s supporters and opponent have moved beyond polarization, they’re now occupying separate realities.”