Mounting political tensions leave Egyptians fearful of civil war

CAIRO — Hundreds of thousands of supporters and critics of Egypt’s Islamist president marched in rallies Friday amid warnings from clerics that deepening political tensions and chaos on the streets two years after the “Arab Spring” could tip the country into civil war.

The latest demonstrations are expected to culminate Sunday, the one-year anniversary of President Mohamed Morsi’s inauguration. Many regard the days ahead as crucial to Egypt’s future as a democracy, and to its chances of avoiding factional bloodshed between Islamists and secularists.

One person, an American, was reported killed Friday in Alexandria, where police fired tear gas to stop fighting between Morsi allies and detractors. An Interior Ministry official said an employee of the U.S. cultural center was stabbed to death while photographing clashes in the city’s Sidi Gabr Square. Other reports suggested the American was shot.

The army, the ultimate arbiter of political power, was deploying around government buildings throughout Egypt, and along the economically vital Suez Canal. In a statement highlighting the alarm shared by political and religious leaders, Al Azhar, the preeminent institute of Sunni Muslim learning, said, “Vigilance is required to ensure we do not slide into civil war.”

Egypt’s economy is imploding. Foreign reserves, needed to buy fuel, are evaporating and the government has so far been unable to close a deal with international lenders for an infusion of cash to keep it from going bankrupt. Activists and opposition figures have despised Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood movement from the beginning, but the poor and the working class are becoming increasingly restive.


The country is angry, poor and hot; motorists wait in gas lines into the night, power outages hopscotch across cities, mothers fight in bread lines and masked men fling Molotov cocktails.

“I want to take Morsi out,” said Ahmed Abdelrazek, carrying stickers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that read, “Leave,” the short slogan of protesters demanding that Morsi step aside. “I want security to come back and young people to find jobs. Morsi has done nothing right.”

The president and the Brotherhood have “no prestige in the world,” said Talaat Ahmed, an engineering student, standing amid flags displaying images of fallen protesters. “If he stays in power, we will have strife. We will turn into Iraq and the entire population will go up in flames.”

The Iraq analogy has become more common in recent months as Egypt has largely split into two camps. While the mostly secular opposition chanted in Tahrir Square on Friday, tens of thousands of Islamists rallied for Morsi in front of a mosque across town. Clashes between Islamists and antigovernment demonstrators have left at least four dead and more than 460 injured in recent days.

Much of the violence has erupted when anti-Morsi protesters have attacked Muslim Brotherhood offices throughout the country, especially in the Nile Delta.

Morsi supporters say the president was fairly elected and that street protests have become the desperate strategy of a politically inept opposition. The president’s critics say he has violated democratic principles by expanding his power; sidelining the courts; persecuting his enemies, including journalists; and advancing the Islamist agenda of the Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafis.

In the last year, clashes have raged for days in cities including Cairo, Port Said, Mansoura and El Mahalla el Kubra, only to suddenly stop. The new protests have been planned for months by a normally divided and erratically focused opposition.

A national address by Morsi this week failed to calm the passions of his opponents.

“Polarization and political conflict have reached a point that they are threatening our nascent democratic experience and the entire nation with paralysis and chaos,” Morsi said.

But the dangers facing Morsi have now transcended politics. His government has failed to convince many Egyptians that their lives are better today than they were under ousted President Hosni Mubarak. This disillusionment troubles the military, which ruled from 2011 until Morsi’s election. The army so far has shown little indication that it wants to return to power, but it is concerned that Morsi is incapable of stemming the nation’s many problems and averting months of unrest that would further deter foreign investment.

On the streets of Cairo on Friday, tents shone in the sun, banners flapped, and protesters, like an army gathering for an unfinished battle, marched into Tahrir Square. The voices of protesters cursing and scorning Morsi crackled in the sweltering heat.

Those in the square were divided by many issues but unified by their outrage against Morsi. Mubarak supporters stood beside mothers whose sons were killed by the former leader’s security forces. And many protesters, who just one year ago railed against military rule, urged the generals to return to politics.

Many Egyptians say they don’t know how their country strayed so far from the ideals of a revolution that not long ago mesmerized the world. But what is clear, they say, is that no fresh voice rose to define a new Egypt after the corruption of the Mubarak years, or to counterbalance the decades-old pursuit of power by the once-outlawed Brotherhood.

“The Islamist elite and Morsi’s clan are not politically savvy. They are a missionary group and this is why they can’t rule,” said Mohasen Mohamed, a retired agricultural engineer. “It’s like putting someone in the water who can’t swim even though they have a bathing suit.”

Like many in Tahrir, Mohamed, sweat streaming from behind her sunglasses, was calling for Morsi to step down and order early elections.

“This is why we are in the street and this is why we will not leave,” she said, flags snapping around her, the voices of activists chanting slogans. “It is just like we did when we got rid of Mubarak. We stayed here. I just pray we don’t fall into a civil war.”

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.