Following a week of sectarian murders, deadly street clashes and even rumours of a possible military coup, Egyptians were bracing themselves for further violence tonight as protesters prepared for mass demonstrations against the rule of President Mohamed Morsi.
The protests, which have been anticipated for several weeks, are driven by a grassroots campaign designed to trigger early presidential elections in a country where food prices have doubled in a year and whose economy faces its worst crisis since the 1930s.
Organisers say more than 15 million people have signed up to the initiative, and a massive turnout is expected on Sunday, the first anniversary of the President’s election victory. Many Egyptians now believe the country stands on the brink of yet more social upheaval almost two and a half years after a popular uprising unseated Mr Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.
“We’re heading towards an unpredictable confrontation which is likely to turn bloody and violent,” said Khalil el-Anani, an Egyptian political analyst.
Islamist supporters of Mr Morsi, who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, have vowed to take to the streets to defend the President. Large numbers were expected to mass last night in central Cairo, raising fears that clashes could erupt before Sunday.
The military – whose leader, General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, this week warned he was ready to intervene to prevent Egypt from entering the “dark tunnel of conflict” – was reportedly transferring troops and tanks to bases in Cairo.
“What we’re heading towards is a military coup with a civilian face,” said Egyptian journalist Dina Samak.
Mr Morsi spoke for three hours on television late on Wednesday night. In front of an auditorium packed with his supporters, the President admitted he had made “mistakes” and offered to begin a reconciliation process with his opponents. Yet he lashed out at judges and Mubarak-era politicians, referring by name to figures he believed were conspiring against his government.
In recent days Egypt has increasingly felt like a nation peering into the abyss. Petrol stations across the country have been running dry as motorists stock up on fuel. In Cairo huge queues have developed outside the city’s ATMs, with rumours spreading that banks are running out of cash.
This week clashes and gun battles erupted in the northern cities of Mansoura and Alexandria, leaving two dead and hundreds injured. All the while news of a sickening sectarian murder has led to a bout of soul-searching among Egyptians.
On Sunday four Shia men were stabbed, lynched and mutilated by a mob in a village near Cairo. The attackers had been spurred on by fundamentalist Sunni sheikhs who objected to a religious feast that was taking place.
Human Rights Watch implicated the Muslim Brotherhood in the murders, saying the killings had occurred following two years of anti-Shia rhetoric which the group had condoned and sometimes participated in.
Egypt: What next?
Mass protests force Morsi to voluntarily step down
The least combustible outcome, but also the most unlikely given how unyielding Mr Morsi has been so far. The prospect also terrifies both the Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist allies. Both see their own future in his survival and will not sacrifice him unless they have to.
Morsi offers concessions
Unwilling to relinquish his grip on power, the President offers an olive branch to opposition. The deal might include a cabinet shake-up or changes to the Islamist-drafted post-revolutionary constitution. Again seems unlikely.
The protests are a damp squib
A nightmare scenario for the opposition. If the demonstrations fizzle out, they will face a hugely empowered Muslim Brotherhood.
A military intervention
Perhaps the most likely scenario – but also the most troubling. If the military orders Morsi to step down in a ‘soft coup’, sparking fresh elections, the Islamists would feel betrayed and possibly taking up arms. Moreover would the liberal and secular opposition fare any better?