As Egypt’s Islamists gear up for renewed protests, fear and anticipation have increased in a country that has experienced four years of unrest and street violence.
The protests, called for by the Salafist Front, have gained attention after months of low-level street activity from supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, apart from protests at universities.
The ultraconservative group calls it an “uprising of the Muslim youth” and a day of “Islamic Identity,” where supporters are encouraged to raise the Quran in demonstrations. The group's demands include the imposition of sharia.
"There’s a war on my religion and my Islam, a war on our values, ethics and identity,” a video that circulated online to call for demonstrations said.
The video listed reasons that ranged from claims of assaults on mosques and immoral acts, to the inequality in wealth distribution and the heavy handedness of security forces when dealing with protesters.
Since Morsi’s toppling last year, protests by his supporters have regularly descended into violence as protesters clashed with security forces or local residents.
Protesters have often set tyres and sometimes public and personal property on fire, and have on some instances been witnessed carrying weapons.
Over the last 16 months, police have violently dispersed many Islamist protests, including the Rabaa and Nahda camps in August 2013, leaving thousands injured and hundreds dead.
Meanwhile, Islamist militants have carried out tens of attacks against churches in the summer of 2013 as well as ongoing attacks against security forces killing hundreds of army and police personnel in Sinai and elsewhere in the country.
But with more violence expected by many on Friday, security has been beefed up, some main roads closed and many churches have suspended their activities for the day.
Who is protesting?
The call for Friday’s protests by the Salafist Front has been welcomed by the Muslim Brotherhood, the group from which Morsi hailed and which is now listed as a terrorist organisation.
It is the first time the Salafist Front has acted outside of the pro-Brotherhood coalition, the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy, which has led efforts against Egypt's current authorities since Morsi's ouster.
"The Muslim Brotherhood treasures the call to preserve the nation's identity, which the Egyptian people including the Muslim Brotherhood fought for," said a statement published on the Brotherhood's website on Sunday. "The Egyptian people won't accept any attempt to obliterate its Islamic identity."
Other Islamist forces, however, said they will not participate, including the Salafist Call and its political wing the Nour Party.
Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, the group that has led most of the violent attacks on the state in the 1980s and the 1990s but later rejected violence, has also declined to join the protests.
Islamist-affiliated parties Al-Watan and Al-Wasat, both former members of the pro-Morsi national alliance, have said they will not participate either.
Ahmed Amin, a leading member of Al-Wasat Party, said his party is not going to participate despite their opposition to the current government because this day “stamps the confrontation with the regime with a sectarian stamp.”
“Any kind of protest have to emerge from the January 2011 revolution,” Amin said. “It is a matter of freedom and democracy, a much bigger picture than what they are depicting.”
He said that the regime might even be “happy” with this day which will “limit the opposition into Islamists.”
“A sectarian tone will divide people while we are in dire need of unity,” he said.
Other groups opposing the regime, like the centrist Strong Egypt party and the radical April 6 youth movements, have also ruled out participation in Friday’s demonstrations.
What to expect
Much of the Egyptian media have warned of violence on Friday after the first statement of the Salafist Front held a veiled reference to a possibility of using armed resistance.
The group's spokesman Khaled Saied later denied any reference to using weapons and said the group was committed to peaceful means.
Some believed the media fuss has over-exaggerated the risks of coming violence, and caught the attention of many who were originally not interested, while others link the calls for the protests with attacks by Salafist Jihadists groups in Sinai on the police and the army.
On Wednesday, a video released on YouTube Wednesday claimed by the Salafist Jihadi group Ajnad Misr has threatened continued attacks against Egyptian security forces until Islamic rule is enforced in Egypt.
However, any direct relationship between militants in Sinai, including Ajnad Masr and the IS-affiliated Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Front, has never been confirmed.
"The media attention to the day has given Islamists false confidence in themselves and what they could possibly do....and has put security on high alert and readiness to use violence," political analyst Amr Rabie said.
Kamal Habib, a researcher in Islamic movements, shared the same view.
"The media has actually magnified the event for the Islamists," Habib said.
He said that the organised groups of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Front may be joined by other non-organised and spontaneous youth who are disappointed by the failure to achieve the revolution’s goals.
“Many young people want any current to adopt their disappointment and to voice their dissent,” Habib said. “The unknown bloc is the most dangerous.”
The Muslim Youth’s Revolt Facebook page also anticipates confrontation with security forces, calling on women not to protest in the streets but rather to participate by “chanting in the balconies.”
Some have criticised the religious message of the protests and in particular the group's call on protesters to raise Qurans during the demonstrations.
The minister for awqaf or religious endowments has said that the call for protests is “sinful” and a call for “corruption and manipulation of religion” and that raising the Quran is a “malicious Brotherhood trick”.
The Islamic Institute of Al-Azhar went further, saying that Egypt is facing “a real war in confrontation with the black terrorism in Sinai” and the call for protests was therefore “treason to religion, nation and people.”
Since Morsi’s ouster, a crackdown on his supporters and on other opponents of the government has seen thousands of people jailed, many under a widely criticised new law that criminalises demonstrations that have not received security permits.
Sending a clear message concerning Friday’s protests, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said that any movements affecting the lives of citizens and threatening society's stability will be faced with “assertive and quick confrontation.”
“Members of the police and army who face any kind of assault on them or the installations they are securing…have the right to self defence…in using guns and referring the attackers to military courts," Ibrahim was quoted by state news agency MENA on Tuesday.
The police have already started to crack down on organisers.
Sixteen alleged members of the Brotherhood were arrested this week on charges of “calling for disruptive protests” on Friday and were accused of spreading chaos, disturbing national peace and security.
On Monday, the Salafist Front announced that five of its leaders were arrested during a meeting in Daqahliya city in the Nile Delta.
“Security forces should not be dragged into using unjustified excessive violence…because there is a challenge, there has to be extra caution,” Habib said.
Some observers warn that bombings might also take place, particularly if mobilisation is made more difficult.
“Violence has been the hallmark of the Brotherhood (since Morsi’s ouster),” political analyst Gamal-Abdel-Gawad said.
However, the Brotherhood said in its Sunday statement that all "political factions" have the right to express themselves and held security forces responsible for any violence that might ensue on Friday.
The scale of confrontation between demonstrators and security forces, however, will still depend on the numbers of people organisers can get on the streets.
“This is not the battle of the disappointed revolutionary youth who cannot find themselves with either the state or the Islamists,” Abdel-Gawad said. “And when people are made to choose between the state and the Islamists…they choose the state.”