Egypt Islamists march as US envoy visits

2013-07-15 14:49
Supporters of Mohammed Morsi chant slogans during a protest near the University of Cairo, Giza, Egypt. (Hassan Ammar, AP)

Supporters of Mohammed Morsi chant slogans during a protest near the University of Cairo, Giza, Egypt. (Hassan Ammar, AP)

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Cairo - The first senior US official to visit Egypt since the army toppled its elected president meets officials on Monday to urge them to swiftly restore democracy, while thousands of supporters of the ousted Islamist leader take to the streets.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns arrived in a divided capital where both sides are furious at the United States, the superpower which supports Egypt with $1.5bn in annual aid, mostly for the army that deposed President Mohammed Morsi.

Crisis in the Arab world's most populous state, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and straddles the strategic Suez Canal, has alarmed allies in the region and the West.

Washington is torn between its professed support for democracy and its clear uneasiness at the rise of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, so far refusing to say whether it views Morsi's removal as a coup, which would require it to halt its aid.

Islamists, who have maintained a vigil demanding Morsi be reinstated, have called a mass protest for Monday, as have Morsi's secularist opponents. Demonstrations in Cairo have been largely peaceful for the past week after at least 92 people were killed in the days after Morsi was toppled.

‘Go home, witch!’

Two rows of armoured personnel carriers were in place near the mosque square in northeast Cairo where Morsi supporters have maintained their vigil. Barbed wire was blocking the street leading from the protest site to the Republican Guard barracks, scene of the worst violence a week ago when uniformed snipers were filmed firing from the rooftops into a crowd.

As thousands of protesters assembled on Monday, a group of women clapped and chanted: "Down with the military regime! Down with the dictator! President Morsi, no one else!"

Demonstrators fasting for the holy month of Ramadan rested in the shadows of tents reading Korans. Army helicopters had flown above overnight, dropping flyers exhorting the crowd to renounce violence and end their sit-in.

Abdel Khalid Abu Zeinia, a 50-year-old accountant camped at the square for 11 days in support of Morsi, said of Burns's visit: "America works against the Egyptian people's interests. America's only concern is its interests, and Israel's. America offers only words, not practical support to democracy."

If Burns is driven through downtown a few miles away, where Morsi's foes mostly gather, he will see a giant banner with a portrait of US ambassador Anne Patterson and the message "Go home, witch!"

Superpower sponsor

Morsi is being held incommunicado at an undisclosed location while a transitional government is being set up under a military backed "road map", which foresees a new constitution and parliamentary elections in about six months.

Morsi has not been charged with a crime but the authorities say they are investigating him over complaints of inciting violence, spying and wrecking the economy. Scores of Morsi supporters were rounded up after violence last week.

Most of the top Brotherhood leaders have been charged with inciting violence but are still at large with the police not following through with arrests.

Morsi's foes have also called for a demonstration on Monday, but their rallies have become sparsely attended since they achieved their objective of bringing him down.

The interim prime minister, a liberal economist, named senior ministers on Sunday, including a former ambassador to the United States as foreign minister, a sign of the importance Cairo places in its relationship with its superpower sponsor.

Both sides angered

The lack of clarity over the US position has fuelled anti-Americanism on both sides. US ambassador Patterson angered Morsi's enemies in the weeks before he was ousted by emphasising Morsi's legitimacy and discouraging protests against him.

Last week the State Department further muddied the waters by saying Morsi's rule was undemocratic, a comment interpreted in Cairo as implying his removal was legitimate. Washington has also called for him to be freed and political detentions halted.

"The goal of his trip is to engage with and hear directly from interim Egyptian officials and civil society as part of our ongoing efforts to see Egypt transition to an inclusive, pluralistic, democratically elected civilian government," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said ahead of Burns's trip.

The interim authorities say the new government is open to all, including even the Brotherhood, an invitation spurned by Mursi's backers who refuse to have any dealings with "usurpers".

Egypt's other main Islamist group, the ultra-orthodox Nour Party, has said it will not participate in the transition but will not challenge it, and wants veto power over ministerial appointments.

 Nour said it had rejected an invitation to meet Burns because of "unjustified interference in Egyptian internal affairs and politics" by the United States.

The political turmoil and unrest in major cities has also fuelled violence in Egypt's lawless North Sinai province bordering Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip, where Islamist militants have called for people to rise up against the army.

A series of attacks in the area have claimed at least 13 lives, mainly security personnel, since 3 July. In the latest assault, suspected militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at a bus carrying workers from a cement factory in the Sinai city of El Arish, killing three and wounding 17.

Army defends action

The general who removed Morsi, army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, vigorously defended the move in a speech to a hall full of military officers on Sunday.

The army had "remained committed to the legitimacy of the ballot box, despite the fact that this legitimacy was beginning to drift from its very basis and principles - that legitimacy is in the hands of the people alone and they are the ones who give it and take it away if they so wish," he said.

When mass demonstrations proved that the public no longer supported Morsi, Sisi said he offered the president the choice of a referendum on his rule. Morsi refused, leaving no other option but to unseat him.

Sisi also emphasised that the transitional government was open to all factions, an apparent olive branch which a Brotherhood spokesperson rejected.

"The guy is either lying or his troops are operating without his knowledge, because the only thing we are seeing from him are arbitrary arrests, confiscation of assets and killing of our protesters," Brotherhood spokesperson Gehad El-Haddad said.

Among the new ministers in interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi's cabinet US-educated economist Ahmed Galal as finance minister has the task of rescuing an economy and state finances wrecked by two and a half years of turmoil.

The task became easier, at least in the short term, after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, Arab states happy at the downfall of the Brotherhood, promised a total of $12bn in cash, loans and fuel.

Read more on:    mohammed morsi  |  abdel fattah al-sisi  |  hazem el-beblawi  |  egypt  |  egypt protests  |  egypt conflict

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