Storm clouds are gathering over Egypt. Political debate threatens to turn into large-scale street violence, and neither side is showing any interest in compromise.
Foes of the president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, have been working for weeks to organise enormous street protests across the country on June 30, the first anniversary of his accession to the post.
An odd assortment of activists, grouped under the name Tamarrod (Rebel) began by circulating a petition against Mr Morsi – they say 7 million have signed – and by calling for peaceful protest on June 30.
But rhetoric, expectations and tension have all mounted sharply, especially since Tamarrod activist Adel Al Hassan was shot and killed on June 9. There is now open talk of June 30 as Mr Morsi’s last day as president.
But he also has supporters. Salafists, at the other end of the political spectrum from Tamarrod, say they will be in the streets starting today. They promise to assemble one million supporters of Mr Morsi; when the Tamarrod protesters arrive, Salafi Front spokesman Khaled Saeed said on Wednesday, “our response will be fierce … the whole world will watch us thwart attempts to storm the presidential palace and hijack legitimacy”. In other words, this promises to end spectacularly badly.
For all the passion of Egypt’s extended and chaotic revolution, the era since the fall of Hosni Mubarak has been free of really large-scale political violence, although there has been some deadly sectarian rioting.
Now, however, these competing street marches by hardliners are creating all the conditions for serious trouble. Clashes have already started; 25 were injured on Wednesday in Fayoum, a city 130km from Cairo.
No doubt the great majority of Egyptians would prefer compromise, or even continued muddle, to large-scale rioting. The examples of Syria and Libya should be all the warning anyone in Egypt needs about the consequences of a resort to political violence.
Mr Morsi’s prime minister, Hesham Qandil, was right to warn this week that change should come through elections, and that if Mr Morsi can be pushed out of office by a mob, then no elected president is safe.
Mr Morsi, however, has shown no respect for voters, ignoring the wishes of so many of them in pushing his Brotherhood agenda relentlessly. That, too, disrespects the spirit of democracy.
Mr Morsi is in office because Mr Mubarak scorned the protests of his people. He should know better than to do the same thing.