(CNSNews.com) – Hours after Egypt’s army chief on Sunday warned that the military was ready to intervene if necessary in the face of dangerous divisions in Egyptian society, a mob led by Salafist Sunni sheikhs attacked a group of Shi’ites, killing four.
Eyewitnesses told the Al-Ahram newspaper that up to 3,000 people attacked Shi’ites’ houses in a village near Cairo, following weeks of incitement by Salafist preachers. Police put the size of the mob at several hundred.
The killings come at a time of heightened sectarian tensions across the region, fueled in part by the Syrian conflict.
Last week Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi participated in an Islamist-organized rally in Cairo in support of the anti-Assad opposition, and Egyptian Salafists have been leading calls for a jihad in Syria, in some cases using anti-Shi’ite rhetoric. (Syrian President Bashar Assad belongs to the Shi’ite Allawite sect and his key backers are Shi’ite Iran and Hezbollah.)
Al-Ahram quoted a Shi’ite activist, Bahaa Anwar, as saying Shi’ites blamed Morsi for Sunday’s bloodshed.
“There are not less than three million Egyptian Shias who live in Egypt and last Saturday during the Syria solidarity conference attended by Morsi in the Cairo stadium, Salafist sheikhs insulted Shias and incited hate against those Egyptian Shia citizens,” he said.
Anwar said Morsi had not refuted the insults and incitement, despite claiming to represent all Egyptians.
About 90 percent of Egypt’s 85 million people are Muslims, the vast majority of them Sunnis. Most estimates of the size of the Shi’ite community range from 800,000 to 2.2 million. The Sunni-Shi’ite schism dates back to a succession rift after the death of Mohammed in the seventh century.
In one week’s time – the first anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration – opposition groups plan to hold mass rallies to demand his resignation. Organizers of a petition drive launched on May 1, known as the Tamarod (“rebel”) movement, say they have reached their goal of 15 million signatures calling for Morsi’s departure and the holding of new presidential elections.
They intend to submit the petition to Egypt’s constitutional court on June 30, alongside the planned demonstrations.
In its own preemptive show of strength the Muslim Brotherhood and allies held a large rally in Cairo on Friday. A statement issued at the end of the event, and released afterwards by the Islamist group, stated, “We are here to say very clearly and decisively, to the first elected civilian president: the Egyptian masses are fully behind you; they support and stand by you wholeheartedly.”
The statement also warned that Morsi’s supporters “will not allow anyone to flout the will of the people or circumvent the ballot box.”
Egypt’s military played a key role during the Mubarak era, and after his February 2011 ouster a supreme military council governed the country until Morsi was sworn in as president on June 30 last year. Al-Sisi was appointed commander-in-chief of the armed forces and defense minister in August.
In his speech Sunday al-Sisi said while the military has since then stayed out of political affairs, it could be called upon to intervene to prevent the country from “slipping down a dark tunnel of criminality, treason, sectarian strife, or collapse of state institutions.”
The military “will not remain silent as the country slips into an uncontrollable conflict,” he said.
Opposition figures Mohamed ElBaradei and Hamdeen Sabahi at a press conference Saturday called for Morsi to resign ahead of next Sunday’s rallies, accusing the Muslim Brotherhood government of reversing the goals of the revolution that brought down the Hosni Mubarak regime.
ElBaradei and Sabahi are leaders of the National Salvation Front, a coalition comprising liberal, nationalist and leftist groups. The two men refused to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry during a visit last March, charging that the Obama administration has allied itself to the Muslim Brotherhood.