Cairo - Opponents of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi have called mass demonstrations on Friday, raising the prospect of more bloodshed despite a pledge by politicians to back off after the deadliest week of his seven months in office.
Protests marking the second anniversary of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak have killed nearly 60 people since January 25. It prompted the head of the army - the institution that effectively ran Egypt for six decades until Morsi's election - to warn that the state was on the verge of collapse.
The country's most influential Islamic scholar hauled in rival political leaders for crisis talks on Thursday and persuaded them to sign up to a charter disavowing violence and committing to dialogue as a way to end the crisis.
But barely had those talks ended at a mediaeval university, when Morsi's foes called for new nationwide protests, including a march on the presidential palace in Cairo, which his followers see as a provocative assault on a symbol of his legitimacy.
“We are going out tomorrow, to Tahrir, and there is a group going to the palace,” said Ahmed Maher, a founder of the April 6 youth protest movement which helped bring down Mubarak in 2011.
“We also confirm our peacefulness and that weapons must not be used, because we see that violence, weapons and molotovs have cost us a lot,” he added after attending the talks.
The protesters accuse Morsi of betraying the spirit of the revolution by concentrating too much power in his own hands and those of the Muslim Brotherhood, a decades-old Islamist movement banned under Mubarak.
The Brotherhood accuses Morsi's opponents of trying to bring down Egypt's first democratically elected leader and use street unrest to seize power they could not win through the ballot box.
The rise of Morsi, an elected Islamist, after generations of rule by authoritarian, secularist military men in the most populous Arab state, is probably the single most important change of the past two years of Arab popular revolts.
But seven months since taking power in a narrow election victory over another former general, Morsi has failed to unite Egyptians and protests have made the country seem all but ungovernable. The instability has worsened an economic crisis, forcing Cairo to drain currency reserves to prop up its pound.
Thursday's meeting of political leaders was convened by Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, head of the 1 000-year-old al-Azhar university and mosque, one of the few institutions still seen as neutral in a society that is increasingly polarised.
He persuaded participants to sign a document pledging to renounce violence and agree to set up a committee to plan more talks. That marked a partial retreat by Morsi's foes; they had previously rebuffed invitations to negotiate, demanding that Morsi first promise to include them in a unity government.
But protest organisers insisted that the deal did not require them to call their followers off the streets.
“The marches of tomorrow are still on, as the Azhar document is on condemnation of violence and we are not doing anything violent,” said Heba Yassin, a spokesperson for Popular Current, one of the main parties behind Friday marches.
Marching on the presidential palace is especially provocative, and past demonstrations there have frequently turned violent in the past.
Protests were also planned in cities along the Suez Canal, where the worst bloodshed of the past eight days took place.
Morsi responded to last week's violence by declaring curfews and imposing emergency rule in the Suez cities, moves which seemed only to further anger his opponents.
“We will take part in the protests to demand the cancellation of the emergency law which President Morsi announced on Sunday night,” said Ali Fathi, an activist in Ismailia, at the mid-point of the canal.
“The level of the demands could increase.”
A diplomat predicted unrest on Friday, with a lower turnout at the marches increasing the chance of bloodshed as a harder core of demonstrators comes to play a bigger role.
“Unfortunately some of the large numbers of people who might wish to protest peacefully will be put off doing so if they are fairly certain protests will turn violent,” the diplomat said.
“That might limit the numbers and increase the chances of unrest - if the concentration of protesters who are prepared to be violent is increased.
“You have groups who clearly just want a confrontation with the state - straightforward anarchy; you've got people who supported the original ideals of the revolution and feel those ideals have been betrayed; and then you have elements of the old regime who have it in their interests to foster insecurity and instability. It is an unhealthy alliance.” - Reuters