By Patrick Kingsley, The Guardian
US citizen dies in Alexandria as tensions rise between supporters and opponents of President Mohamed Morsi
Egypt suffered renewed outbreaks of violence on Friday as Muslim Brotherhood offices were attacked in at least four provinces, two days before the scheduled start of mass protests against the president and Brotherhood associate Mohamed Morsi.
Two people were killed in Alexandria on Friday – one was an American bystander who was watching an attack on local Brotherhood offices – and 70 were injured. Clashes were reported in several other cities between Morsi's often secular-minded critics, who seek his immediate resignation, and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, who defend his democratic legitimacy.
The US updated its advice to its citizens on Friday, asking them to defer non-essential travel to Egypt "due to the continuing possibility of political and social unrest". The US state department also withdrew some non-emergency staff and family members from the country.
Six people have now been killed in the renewed violence this week. According to Brotherhood officials, a former MP from their political wing was among the dead on Thursday.
Many fear far worse on Sunday. Opposition activists claim that 15 million Egyptians have signed a petition calling for Morsi's departure, while his supporters say 11 million have signed one asking for him to stay. Spokesmen for both factions told the Guardian that clashes were started by the other side, with the Brotherhood claiming some of the violence was fomented by forces still loyal to ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak – a claim rebutted by anti-Morsi activists.
Much of the opposition, who view Morsi as incompetent and authoritarian, hope Egypt's military will intervene and facilitate a transition of power. Morsi, inaugurated last year as Egypt's first democratically elected president, emphasised in a speech on Wednesday that he was the army's commander-in-chief. But a senior military source said the army may act if protests reach the same scale as those that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Such an outcome would not be taken lying down by Morsi's supporters. "This would not be like the fall of Mubarak," said Nathan Brown, professor of Middle Eastern politics at George Washington University. "A lot of people co-operated with the Mubarak regime, but there were very few who would voluntarily and enthusiastically turn out on the streets for him. The Brotherhood is very different."
Meanwhile, Egypt's leading Islamic authority underlined the severity of the threat facing the country. Sheikh Hassan al-Shafie – a senior cleric at al-Azhar, a 1,000-year-old mosque and university often considered the highest seat of learning in the Sunni Islam world – said: "Vigilance is required to ensure we do not slide into civil war."
Such fears may yet prove highly exaggerated, especially as no faction controls formal militias. But Egypt is clearly polarised, as shown by two competing rallies in Cairo on Friday. In Tahrir Square, thousands of Morsi critics gathered in a dress rehearsal for Sunday's protests, chanting: "Banish the murshid [the Brotherhood leader] and all who are with him." Five miles away, near the presidential palace, hundreds of thousands gathered in defence of his office and his beliefs. "Islam, Islam," some shouted. "Islam in spite of liberalism."
With both sides waving Egyptian flags, there was a sense that the rallies constituted two competing and irreconcilable visions of Egypt: one Islamist, the other secular – though still religious.
But there were signs that the ideological divide was not unbridgeable.
"I'm not here for religious reasons, I'm just here to respect the office of the presidency," said Tariq Shabasy, a lawyer who is a former member of Kefaya, the liberal Mubarak-era protest movement – and a surprising attendee at the pro-Morsi rally.
Nevertheless, the rally may eventually play a role in any full-on factional fighting. Its attendees started a sit-in on Friday night, promising to defend the nearby presidential palace should state officials fail to prevent anti-Morsi protesters from breaching it in the coming days.
Elsewhere there were hints of a media crackdown, with a prominent opposition media baron, Mohamed al-Amin – who owns a newspaper critical of the president and a TV station that hosts the satirist Bassem Youssef – banned from leaving the country. Morsi had attacked Amin in a Wednesday night speech for not paying his taxes.
Another opposition talkshow host, Tawfiq Okasha, was arrested on Thursday and his channel shut down. The investment minister, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, also sacked representatives of three private channels from the board of a state-run body that helps regulate television. Several private channels were threatened with closure.
Watch a video report from CNN, aired Friday, below.