CAIRO – 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.
In 1981, then-President Anwar Sadat was gunned down by Islamic extremists on live TV. The Islamic militant insurgency against Mubarak in the 1990s saw a number of assassinations. One radical tried to stab Nobel Laureate novelist Naguib Mahfouz, but he narrowly survived. Writer Farag Fouda, who was a scathing critic of Islamists, was gunned down as he left his office, days after a fatwa called for his death as an apostate.
Fouda's daughter, Samar, warned ElBaradei this week about the new fatwas.
"They killed my father after a fatwa permitting the shedding of his blood. Don't take lightly what might happen and what they say. They are sick," she wrote on her Twitter account.
Some activists worry that there is already a pattern of their members being targeted — whether for intimidation or worse.
Hamdi el-Fakharani, a lawyer with the Salvation Front, says he has been beaten up several times by suspected Brotherhood members in his hometown, the industrial city of Mahallah el-Kubra in the Nile Delta. Brotherhood members have raised lawsuits against him, accusing him of inciting riots against Morsi in the city the past two weeks.
"It is very possible that one day while the Front leaders are meeting all together, a man with machine gun kills us all," said el-Fakharani. "I am really worried about my family and myself. I change cars all the time."
The opposition is also alarmed about the killing of several young activists since November, most of whom worked on anti-Brotherhood pages on Facebook. Three were shot to death amid crowds of protesters during police crackdowns on rallies in which others died as well. Still, their comrades are convinced that they were specifically targeted.
The first was 16-year-old Gaber Salah, known by the nickname Jeka, who died after being hit by a spray of birdshot at his head and chest from close range during a protest near Tahrir Square on Nov. 15. He was a founder of a Facebook page called "Together Against the Muslim Brotherhood."
Others involved in the page have faced troubles. One founder, a Christian, was summoned by the National Security Agency, the main internal security apparatus, and told not to work on the page anymore, said another administrator of the page, who spoke on condition he be identified only by his first name, Ahmed, for fear of reprisals by police. Yet another founder was snatched from his home on the same day that Jeka was shot, Ahmed said.
"What do you think? I believe this is all planned," Ahmed said.
Mohammed Hussein, also known as Kristi, the founder of a Facebook page called "Brotherhood Liars," was shot to death outside the palace on Feb. 1.
Another prominent activist, Mohammed el-Gindi, disappeared from a Jan. 25 protest in Tahrir, was later brought to a hospital in a coma and died last week. Medical reports say he had burns from electrical shocks on his tongue, wire marks around his neck, smashed ribs and a broken skull. The Interior Ministry denied he was ever held by police.
Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki told the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper Saturday that the coroner concluded el-Gindi died in a car accident.
Omar Morsi, founder of an anti-Brotherhood page called MolotovCola, disappeared from a Jan. 27 protest and his whereabouts was not known for days. He is now comatose in a Cairo hospital with a shotgun pellet in his head.
His father, Ahmed Morsi — who said he voted for the president in last year's election — accused the security forces.
"If you keep unleashing the dogs of the Interior Ministry to kill our sons, you will not stay in your seat for long," said the father, addressing Morsi.