Obama calls for peace talks in Egypt

2013-06-30 14:00

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US President Barack Obama called on Egypt’s government and opposition yesterday to engage in constructive dialogue to prevent violence spilling out across the region.

Political violence yesterday killed three people, including an American student, Andrew Pochter, and mass rallies are planned for today aimed at unseating Islamist President Mohamed Morsi.

Obama said he was “looking at the situation with concern”. Hundreds have been wounded and at least eight killed in street fighting for over a week as political deadlock deepens.

“Every party has to denounce violence,” said Obama at the other end of Africa, in Pretoria. “We’d like to see the opposition and President Morsi engage in a more constructive conversation about how they move their country forward, because nobody is benefiting from the current stalemate.”

He added that it was “challenging, given there is not a tradition of democracy in Egypt”.

Mursi’s critics hope millions will march today when he marks a year in power to demand new elections. They accuse his Muslim Brotherhood of hijacking the revolution of 2011 and using its electoral majorities to monopolise power.

“Egypt is the largest country in the Arab world,” Obama said. “The entire region is concerned that, if Egypt continues with this constant instability, that has adverse effects more broadly.” US missions would be protected, he said.

The Egyptian army, heavily funded by Washington since before Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, is on alert.

It warned politicians it may step in if they lose control of the streets – an outcome some in the diffuse opposition coalition may quietly welcome, but to which Mursi’s Islamist allies might respond with force.

It is unclear how big the rallies will be or when they may start. Protest organisers said a petition calling on Mursi to quit had 22 million signatures – over 40% of the electorate and 7 million more than they announced 10 days ago.

The figure could not be verified, but independent analysts say there is a real prospect of very large demonstrations.

Some few thousand activists in Cairo were camping out at rival centres yesterday. There was no sign of renewed trouble.

In the capital, Islamist supporters were still camped outside a suburban mosque where they had gathered in the many thousands on Friday to vent anger and fear over a return of army-backed rule.

Some speakers also urged reconciliation.

On Tahrir Square, seat of the uprising of early 2011, flags and tents formed a base camp for protesters.

They hoped for millions on the streets under slogans accusing Mursi and the Brotherhood of hijacking the revolution against Hosni Mubarak to entrench their own rule.

A rally was also planned outside the presidential palace, where some had already taken up position.

Egypt’s leading religious authority warned of the risk of “civil war” after violence in the past week that left several dead and hundreds injured. The clerics backed Mursi’s offer to talk to opposition groups before today’s?protests.

A senior figure at Cairo’s Al-Azhar institute said today should be a day of “community dialogue and civilised expression of opinion”, a “catalyst” for political leaders to understand their national duty – and the “dangerous alternative”.

Senior Brotherhood figure Essam el-Erian was dismissive of middle-class protest organisers in a Facebook post: “Millions of farmers will wake early, perform their morning prayers and go to their fields to harvest food for the people,” he wrote.

Warning again that Mubarak-era “thugs” would spread violence among peaceful protesters, he said government would continue: “President Mohamed Mursi will go to his office tomorrow to sign new planning and budget laws for the new financial year.”

Medical and security officials in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city, said the American was fatally stabbed as he filmed events at the Brotherhood office in the Mediterranean port during an attack by anti-Mursi protesters, who eventually ransacked it.

Kenyon College in Ohio said Pochter was one of its students and came from Chevy Chase, Maryland.

A Facebook post apparently from his family said Pochter had been teaching English to 7- and 8-year-olds and had been improving his Arabic: “He went to Egypt because he cared profoundly about the Middle East, and he planned to live and work there in the pursuit of peace and understanding,” the post read.

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