Election day in Cairo, 2011, before the descent into madness. Photographer: Shawn Baldwin/Bloomberg
Election day in Cairo, 2011, before the descent into madness. Photographer: Shawn Baldwin/Bloomberg

You know Egypt is spinning from the world of reason when the only people making sense are ultra-conservative Salafist Islamists.

Looking every inch a Hollywood dictator in his bemedaled uniform and dark sunglasses today, Defense Minister General Abdelfatah al-Seesi called for mass protests on Friday, to give him a mandate to "confront the potential violence and terrorism."

I think we can now dispense with the charade that Egypt is being run by a civilian government.

Civilian leaders don't generally respond to bloody clashes between political rivals in the streets by urging more people into the streets. At best, this is a dangerous attempt by al-Seesi to use the strength of the mob to legitimize his use of wider, emergency-style powers to crush Islamist militants. At worst, it is a transparent effort by a general to launder his seizure of power.

The liberal protest leaders of the Tamarod movement backed al-Seesi's call. They still don't believe there has been a coup. They see the Muslim Brotherhood as the enemy and al-Seesi as their savior and protector. The Brotherhood, meanwhile, are retreating deeper into their persecution complex with every act of persecution. They responded to al-Seesi by calling for their own mass protests Friday, and warned that the country may be plunged into "seas of blood."

Each side is raising the other in Egypt's gamble for power. The only sane thing to do in this situation, surely, is to urge everybody to stay home; open up channels for negotiation; and halt attempts to prosecute Brotherhood leaders so they have an incentive to deal. Incredibly, it has fallen to the Salafist Nour Party to do make that call.

Nobody will pay Nour any attention -- in this case, regrettably. Friday will be a day of showing strength in a country where the corrosive idea that legitimacy comes from the ability to draw crowds into the streets is now embedded. We can only hope weakly that this doesn't end in large-scale killing, an outcome that is no longer far-fetched.

At least three more people were killed overnight in Egypt, one in an apparent Islamist attack on a police station, and two more in clashes between protesters. Sinai is becoming lawless again, as al-Qaeda-style militants activate. Close to 100 people have been killed since the military toppled President Mohamed Mursi on July 3, more than half of them shot by the army.

Too few Egyptians appear to recognize that this way lies madness.

(Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter.)