Mohammed Mursi

Egypt’s rulers signal move against Brotherhood sit-ins

Army-backed cabinet orders end to dangers posed by vigils

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 August, 2013, 3:28am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 August, 2013, 3:28am

Egypt’s army-backed rulers signalled on Wednesday that they could soon act to end weeks of sit-in protests by supporters of deposed President Mohammed Mursi, setting up a potentially bloody showdown with his Muslim Brotherhood.

In a televised statement, the cabinet installed by Egypt’s army after it overthrew Mursi on July 3 said two Cairo vigils by thousands of his supporters represented a “threat to Egyptian national security”, citing “terrorist acts” and traffic disruption.

“The cabinet decided to begin taking all necessary measures to address these dangers and put an end to them,” it said, handing the task to the Interior Ministry.

A move against the vigils could bring a new round of bloodletting after security forces shot dead 80 supporters of Mursi’s Brotherhood at dawn on Saturday, deepening the turmoil convulsing the Arab world’s most populous nation.

Minutes before the cabinet statement, judicial sources told Reuters that the Brotherhood’s supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, and two of its senior officials had been referred to court on charges of inciting violence. Badie has not yet been detained.

Such steps will fuel global concern that Egypt’s new rulers plan to crush the Brotherhood, which emerged from decades in the shadows to win power in repeated elections after a 2011 revolt toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

The United States, treading a fine line with a pivotal Arab ally and recipient of US$1.3 billion in US military aid, urged restraint.

“We have continued to urge the interim government to respect the right of peaceful assembly,” Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman at the US State Department, told reporters. “That obviously includes sit-ins.”

Rights group Amnesty International called the cabinet decision “a recipe for further bloodshed” and a “seal of approval to further abuse.”

Mursi’s supporters vow to stay put until the reinstatement of Egypt’s first freely elected president. The army has set its own “road map” for elections, promising a return to civilian rule, a process the Brotherhood has spurned.

Almost 300 people have been killed in weeks of violence since the army deposed Mursi. Saturday’s deaths, the worst mass killing since Mubarak was toppled in 2011, happened near the main vigil at a mosque in northern Cairo, when supporters of Mursi began marching after a day of rival mass rallies.

The West fears a wider conflagration in Egypt, which straddles the Suez Canal and has a 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

The cabinet announcement came on the heels of a visit by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, during which she urged all sides to refrain from violence and stressed the right to peaceful protest.

Ashton, who was permitted to meet Mursi at an undisclosed location where he is jailed, called for an “inclusive” political process, one that would include the Brotherhood.

EU envoy Bernadino Leon was in Cairo on Wednesday to press the bloc’s mediation efforts. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was also due to arrive and two senior US Republican senators are expected next week.

The interim government says the protesters are armed. But the Brotherhood accuses security forces of whipping up trouble to justify a crackdown. The Islamist movement repeated its defiant line on Wednesday.

“We don’t recognise this government and we don’t recognise the authorities or the laws they represent,” spokesman Gehad El-Haddad said.

Asked about the possibility of a crackdown, he said: “They tried to do that twice and they failed. They killed 200 protesters. Do they want to try that again?”

Egypt’s crisis deepened with a call last week by army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the man behind Mursi’s overthrow, for Egyptians to take to the streets and give the army a “mandate” to crack down on terrorism, a clear reference to the once-banned Brotherhood.

Hundreds of thousands turned out on Friday in rival mass rallies for and against Mursi. Security forces have made no attempt to rein in demonstrations by opponents of the Brotherhood.

Mursi has been detained since he was deposed and is under investigation on a raft of charges, including murder, stemming from his break-out from jail during the uprising against Mubarak.

Ashton this week became the first outsider to see him, flown after dark by military helicopter to his secret place of confinement. She said he was in good health. On Wednesday an African Union delegation was also given access.

It was unclear whether Germany’s Westerwelle would also see him. Al-Ahram, a state-run news website, quoted Egypt’s interim foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, as saying Mursi was not a “shrine” for visitors.

Speaking to Reuters, prominent liberal leader and Mubarak’s former foreign minister, Amr Moussa, called on the Brotherhood to return to the political arena.

“Sitting there, what is the message?” he said. “The message has been sent.”