Tens of thousands of supporters of Egypt's Islamist president gathered on Friday for a huge rally that filled part of a main boulevard near Cairo's presidential palace in a show of force against opponents demanding his ouster, signs of increasing tension and polarization.
With pictures of President Mohammed Morsi, Quranic chants over loudspeakers and shouts of "Islamic, Islamic in the eye of the secularists," the rally indicated that Morsi's Islamist backers and his Muslim Brotherhood appeared to be an attempt to give a religious flavor to the nation's deep political differences.
Friday's pro-Morsi rally was meant to counter plans by his opponents to stage mass demonstrations on June 30, the anniversary of his coming to power in 2012, demanding that he step down. He was elected after a popular uprising ousted President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Morsi's year in power has been marred by constant political unrest and a sinking economy, ills that are clearly linked.
Morsi's opponents charge that he and his Brotherhood have been systematically amassing power, excluding liberals, secular groups and even ultraconservative Salafi Muslims.
A persistent security vacuum and political turmoil have frightened away foreign investors and tourists. Egypt's already battered economy has continued to slide, draining foreign currency reserves and resulting in worsening fuel shortages and electricity cuts along with increasing unemployment. All of these factors have added to anti-Morsi sentiments, further polarizing the nation.
His backers charge that the opposition, having lost elections, is trying to impose its will through street protests. Their counter-campaign is taking on increasingly religious tones.
The pro-Morsi demonstration Friday was called "1 million people rally against violence."
Even so, the anti-violence rally was accompanied by religious edicts from pro-Brotherhood clerics who gave a green light to fighting Morsi's opponents, describing their planned June 30 protests as "religious war."
On Thursday a Gamaa Islamiya leader, Assem Abdel-Maged, told a gathering in southern city of Minya, a stronghold of his group, "Those conspiring against Morsi and want his ouster are the Coptic (Christian) extremists, the Communists and the remnants" of the Mubarak regime. He added, "our deaths are in heaven, and their deaths are in hell."
A member of pro-Morsi's Islamist umbrella called Religious Legal Commission for Rights and Reform said that killing those who take up arms against Muslims on June 30 is permissible.
In a video circulated on social networking sites, Ashraf Abdel-Moneim said, "those who raise an arm against Muslims and threaten them with death or fight them or kill them, they have no sanctity, and it is even a duty to push them back, even by killing them if they don't retreat."
In a snub to hard-line Islamist backers of Morsi, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque said that peaceful protests against the president are permitted.
Cairo's Al-Azhar is the Sunni Muslim world's foremost seat of learning and styles itself as a voice of moderation. With the political rise of ultraconservatives since Mubarak's fall in February 2011, el-Tayeb and other leading Al-Azhar clerics have actively pushed back against their strict interpretations.
The June 30 protest campaign is rooted in a months-long petition drive. Organizers announced on Thursday that that they have collected up to 15 million signatures on a call for early presidential election and Morsi's ouster.
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