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Fear of assassinations haunt Egypt opposition

Sunday - 2/10/2013, 5:40am  ET

FILE - In this Monday, Feb. 4, 2013 file photo, Egyptian relatives of Mohammed el-Gindy, a 28-year-old activist, who died of wounds sustained during clashes near the presidential palace, display his picture as they shout anti-president Morsi slogans during his funeral procession in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt. Arabic reads "my name is Mohammed and I did not deserve to die this way." Watching the events in Tunisia, where a leading anti-Islamist politician was recently assassinated, members of Egypt's liberal opposition are fearfully asking, Could it happen here too? There are reasons for concern: hardline clerics have called for the killing of opposition leaders, and activists say there are worrying signs that show the ruling Islamists are targeting their ranks _ disappearances of activists from protests and telephone death threats. With Islamists convinced the opposition is trying to overthrow President Mohammed Morsi, there is fertile ground for violence. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)

MAGGIE MICHAEL
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- Watching the events in Tunisia, where a leading anti-Islamist politician was shot to death this past week, members of Egypt's liberal opposition are fearfully asking: Could it happen here too?

Their fears of a renegade Islamist attack on any of the top opposition leaders have been hiked by religious edicts issued by hardline clerics on TV saying they must be killed. But even before those edicts, activists have been worried by signs they say show that ruling Islamists are starting to target their ranks -- disappearances of activists from protests, telephone death threats, warnings from security officials.

Some in the opposition say there's no sure proof of a campaign, just worrisome patterns. But the fears point to how agitated the atmosphere has become in Egypt, with tempers hiked on both sides. The mainly liberal and secular opposition accuses Islamist President Mohammed Morsi of unleashing security forces to crush their protests against him. In turn, many Islamist backers of the president are convinced that the opposition is trying to topple a democratically elected leader by force.

In that environment, an assassination against a top opposition figure like that of Tunisia's Chokri Belaid could be explosive.

Authorities appear to recognize the potential danger. The government increased security at the homes of Egypt's top opposition figures, including Mohamed ElBaradei, a senior figure in the National Salvation Front. On Saturday, there was a startling moment when ElBaradei was getting into vehicle, tightly surrounded by bodyguards, and a middle aged man pushed toward him, shouting hysterically, "You'll wreck Egypt, you'll wreck Egypt" before guards pulled him aside.

And some in the Islamist camp are worried violence could disrupt their goal of installing an Islamic state in Egypt. Some of the hardest-line Islamist groups postponed pro-Morsi rallies planned for last Friday at the presidential palace, fearing collisions with opposition protesters.

"We are practicing extreme self-restraint," Mohammed al-Zawahri, who is the brother of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri and is himself a prominent jihadi figure in Egypt, said in an earlier interview with The Associated Press.

Morsi's office, his prime minister and the Muslim Brotherhood -- which forms the foundation of Morsi's rule -- all condemned the edicts, or fatwas, calling for the killing of opposition figures. In one fatwa, an ultraconservative cleric, Mahmoud Shaaban, accused the Salvation Front's leaders of "setting Egypt on fire to gain power" and said the "verdict against them under God's law is death."

Some in the opposition, however, say the rhetoric of the Brotherhood and of Morsi's office fuels such threats by depicting opposition protesters as thugs and vandals and accusing the opposition's political leadership of using street violence to topple Morsi. The president has denounced opponents as "weevils eating away at the nation" and claimed to have recordings of the opposition plotting against his rule.

In December, senior Brotherhood member Mohammed Yacout told an independent TV station that the Brotherhood has information that the Front planned to kidnap Morsi to take power.

Salvation Front spokesman Khaled Dawoud said such talk is "dangerous because it is definitely preparing the general atmosphere for attacks against opposition leaders."

"You demonize me, you accuse me of being an agent who receives money from abroad though I can't pay installments for my car," he said. "They don't use the word death, but certainly it could incite young men to take action by their own hands."

Dawoud said he and leading members of the Front receive death threats by phone and text message.

"I used to take these threats lightly," he said. "But after what is happening now, when I go down the street, I look left and right because I am afraid a man with a knife is standing at a corner waiting to stab me."

There have been plenty of deaths already in Egypt's recent tensions. Around 70 people, mostly anti-Morsi protesters, were killed in protests that erupted in late January across much of the nation and continue to simmer. Around a dozen people were killed in November and December. Most of the deaths have come in clashes as security forces clamp down on stone-throwing protesters.

But an outright assassination would be a dangerous new turn in Egypt's turbulent transition since the toppling of autocrat Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago.

There are certainly precedents.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned until Mubarak's fall, renounced violence in the 1970, but it killed a string of top politicians in the 1940s and 1950s and was accused of trying to assassinate former leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

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