CAIRO — The power struggle between Egypt’s Islamic and secularist forces intensified Wednesday, with some analysts warning of civil war and supporters of the Islamist government planning to march Saturday on a central square in Cairo where opponents have been holding a sit-in for more than a week.
Fears of violent street clashes between supporters and opponents of President Mohammed Morsi grew a day after more than 200,000 demonstrators crowded into Tahrir Square, the iconic scene of last year’s Arab Spring protest, to denounce the president for decrees he issued last week that put him above any oversight, including the judiciary.
Judges in the country’s appellate courts joined the protest Wednesday by announcing a strike against any further legal business until Mr. Morsi rescinds his decree.
Meanwhile, the country’s highest judicial panel, the Supreme Constitutional Court, announced a direct challenge to Mr. Morsi. It said it will rule Sunday on whether to dissolve a 100-member assembly writing a new constitution, which is dominated by Mr. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist allies.
“We are fearful that, for the first time, the prospect of a civil war is now on the agenda,” said Khaled Fahmy, a history professor at the American University in Cairo.
“I have always said, ‘No, I don’t think this can happen.’ [Now], I feel that this can very well happen.”
The constitution will define how Egypt’s government functions. Secular Egyptians are concerned that Islamists are imposing a constitution that grants the president too much power and could limit freedom of speech and the rights of women and minorities.
“Egypt is lost for good, ruined for good,” said Mona El-Ashry, 39, a pharmacist. “Today, the Muslim Brotherhood decided to occupy Egypt. The Muslim Brothers do not treat Egyptians as one family. They impose everything on the people and will never leave the throne.”
Rushing to pass the constitution
Islamists continued their attempts to pass the constitution despite the withdrawal over the past few weeks of liberal, leftist and Coptic Christian members of the constitutional assembly. The assembly is pushing to finish a draft of the legal charter by Thursday.
The head of the assembly, Hossam al-Gheriany, urged secular members to “come back and finish the discussion on Thursday.”
Still, his attempts to assuage opposition concerns are unlikely to succeed, given the tense mood in Cairo, analysts say.
“The feeling is at the moment that certainly among the opposition, none of the checks and balances that they want will be strong enough,” said David Hartwell, an analyst at Jane’s Defense Weekly.
Others say the decision to put the constitution to a vote Thursday reflects confidence in Mr. Morsi’s camp that Islamic forces will win a subsequent referendum early next year. That vote would confirm the popular legitimacy of the draft constitution.
“They feel that they will have enough votes to pass it, and I believe them,” Mr. Fahmy said.