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Egyptian clerics warn of 'civil war' ahead of mass protests

As Egypt approaches a weekend of confrontation, the divide between those who love and those who despise President Mohammed Morsi and his pro-Islamist government is wider than ever. NBC's Charlene Gubash reports.

Egypt risks sliding into civil war, the country's leading religious authority warned Friday, as the nation braced itself for mass nationwide protests.

Organizers of "June 30" demonstrations — which mark one year since Islamist President Mohammed Morsi's election — claim they have the backing of an estimated 15 million Egyptians who want him to resign.


"Only God knows what will happen" Sunday, said Gamal Abdul Aziz, a pro-Morsi car mechanic in Madba'a, a blue-collar district in Cairo.

There were ominous signs Friday. U.S. officials told NBC News that they were investigating reports that a U.S. citizen was stabbed to death Friday during protests in Alexandria, where at least 80 other people have been wounded, the state news agency MENA reported.

The State Department authorized the departure of a limited number of non-emergency employees and family members and warned U.S. citizens to defer non-essential travel to Egypt.

NBC News

Gamal Abdul Aziz, left, a pro-Morsi car mechanic, argues with anti-Morsi computer science student Mohamed Abdul Munim, right, while being interviewed this week.

Building on discontent about a range of social and economic issues, Morsi's opponents hope to force early presidential elections.

His supporters, meanwhile, have promised they will also take to the streets to defend the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government.

"Vigilance is required to ensure we do not slide into civil war," clerics of the Al-Azhar institute said in a statement broadly supportive of Morsi, Reuters reported.

It blamed "criminal gangs" who besieged mosques for street violence that the Brotherhood said has killed five of its supporters in a week.

In an example of just how polarized the debate over Egypt's future has become, Aziz and his family became embroiled in a shouting match with a nearby resident, anti-Morsi computer science student Mohamed Abdul Munim, 23, while being interviewed this week.

Amr Nabil / AP

Egyptian drivers wait outside in long lines at a gasoline station in Cairo on Tuesday.

The argument, which took place after NBC News filmed a political discussion between the two, ended when Munim stormed off.

The dispute and recent violence — one man was shot dead and four other people were wounded in an attack on a Muslim Brotherhood office Thursday — was an ill omen for Sunday's marches.

The country's powerful army, which helped protesters topple Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime in 2011, has reinforced its presence in cities like Cairo and Port Said.

Munim said he believed "most" of Egypt's registered 50 million voters will be out on the streets, supporting one side or the other.

"We are sure that we will go out and get beaten up by the [Muslim] Brotherhood, [but] we are going out despite this," he said. "There is no security. There is economic collapse. The electricity cuts off and everybody is suffering. They will say Morsi is not at fault, but electricity didn't cut off when the military governed."

Aziz, meanwhile, said his life had improved under Morsi and accused the mostly secular opposition of "waging a war against Islam."

"Can you build a house in a day? No, it takes time." he said. "What can a president do in one year when a country is in ruins? The old [Mubarak] regime stole the country and left it destroyed."

In a sign of the nervousness many felt, Egyptians were stocking up on food, fuel, water and cash in the days leading up the protests.

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Morsi's supporters claim the demonstration — organized by an opposition umbrella group named "Tamarod," meaning "Rebel" — is setting the stage for a repeat of the 2011 Arab Spring revolution.

Mahmoud Badr, a 28-year-old journalist and founder of the Tamarod movement, dismissed a televised speech by Morsi on Wednesday night in which the president appealed for calm.

"Our demand was early presidential elections, and since that was not addressed anywhere in the speech, then our response will be on the streets" Sunday, he told the English-language Egypt Independent news site.

The U.S. Embassy announced Tuesday that it would be closing its doors for the day of the demonstrations, but it added that "potentially violent protest activity may occur before June 30," and urged U.S. citizens to "maintain a low profile" from Friday onward.

Underscoring fears of violence, defenders of Morsi revealed plans Tuesday to form vigilante groups to protect public buildings from opposition demonstrations, the Egypt Independent reported, quoting Safwat Abdel Ghany, a member of Islamic umbrella organization Jama'a al-Islamiya.

"If chaos sweeps across the country, Islamist groups will secure state institutions and vital facilities against robbery by thugs and advocates of violence," he was quoted as saying.

Members of Tamarod were so confident that they would force Morsi from power that the organization set out a constitutional "road map" that it said would take Egypt forward without a president until new elections.

Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute think tank, said this week that battle lines were drawn between "an enraged opposition" and "an utterly incapable, confrontational ruling party that now counts some of Egypt's most violent political elements as its core supporters."

"Rising food prices, hours-long fuel lines and multiple-times-daily electricity cuts — all worsening amidst a typically scorching Egyptian summer — have set many Egyptians on edge, with clashes between Brotherhood and anti-Brotherhood activists now a common feature of Egyptian political life," he said.

"Whatever happens on [Sunday], it can't end well," he added.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Related:

Morsi: Political division threatens Egypt's democracy

Egypt's Islamists rally to show Morsi support — and warn opponents

Egypt's Coptic Christians say they are 'no longer safe'

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