US envoy visits Egypt for talks

Talks with military come as Egypt’s interim prime minister finalises cabinet

 

The first senior US official to visit Egypt since the army toppled the country’s elected president will hold high-level talks in Cairo today, where thousands of supporters of the ousted Islamist leader are expected to take to the streets.

Egyptians have been shocked by violent protests in which 92 people have been killed. However, despite deep divisions between those who supported and those who opposed overthrown president Mohamed Morsi, they are united by their suspicion of Washington’s motives.

US deputy secretary of state William Burns may face awkward questions when he visits Cairo, where portraits of US ambassador Anne Patterson have been overwritten with the words “Go home, witch”.

The visit will include talks with the military and comes as Egypt’s interim prime minister finalises his cabinet.

It has been given the task of implementing a military-backed plan to hold parliamentary elections in about six months’ time and to return Egypt to civilian rule. The army toppled Mr Morsi on July 3rd when millions took to the streets to demand he resign.

The move sparked outrage among Mr Morsi’s followers, Egypt’s first freely elected president, and street battles between them and his opponents swept the country on July 5th leaving 35 dead.

A week ago, 53 Morsi supporters were killed by soldiers at the Republican Guard compound in Cairo in a clash the army blamed on an attack on its troops by demonstrators, but which Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement called a “massacre”.

Four soldiers also died in the clash. Subsequent protests by the Brotherhood have mobilised tens of thousands to take to the streets, but they have passed off peacefully.

Islamist militants in Egypt’s lawless North Sinai province, bordering Israel and the Gaza Strip, 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 July 3rd.

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, security and medical sources said.

US support

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

In a statement, the US State Department said Mr Burns would “underscore US support for the Egyptian people, an end to all violence, and a transition leading to an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government.”

The United States has studiously avoided calling Mr Morsi’s overthrow a coup, because, under US laws dating back to the 1980s, to do so would mean stopping the $1.3 billion in military aid it gives Egypt each year.

The Brotherhood said it was a coup, but the head of Egypt’s armed forces, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, said the military was enforcing the will of the people after huge crowds took to the streets on June 30th to pressure Mr Morsi into stepping down.

What pro- and anti-Morsi camps do agree on is a belief that the United States conspired to help the other side.

It was not clear whether Mr Burns would meet members of the Brotherhood during his visit, which is scheduled to end tomorrow. The country’s biggest Islamist force has said it wants nothing to do with the political transition.

The second main Islamist movement, the Nour Party, broke ranks with the Brotherhood and supported the military’s political “road map”, although it has distanced itself somewhat since the shootings at the military compound.

A senior party official said today that Nour had turned down an invitation to meet Mr Burns because of what he called “unjustified interference in Egyptian internal affairs and politics” by the United States.

Unilateral action

In a speech to a hall full of military officers yesterday, Gen Sisi justified the takeover. He said the president had lost legitimacy because of the mass demonstrations against him.

The general, whose intervention is popular with many Egyptians, said he tried to avert the need for unilateral action by offering Mr Morsi the option of holding a referendum on his rule, but “the response was total rejection”.

Sisi also insisted the political process remained open to all groups - though the Muslim Brotherhood has shunned dealings with “usurpers”.

Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad dismissed the speech. “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,” he said.

Mr Morsi has been held incommunicado at an undisclosed location since he was removed from power. The authorities have not charged him with a crime, but said on Saturday that they were investigating complaints against him over spying, inciting violence and wrecking the economy.

The public prosecutor said it had ordered the freezing of the assets of 14 Brotherhood and other Islamist leaders.

Thousands of Mr Morsi’s followers have maintained a vigil at a crossroads near a mosque in northeast Cairo, where they have braved brutal summer heat and daytime fasting during Ramadan to push their demand for the leader to be reinstated.

According to the state Mena news agency, army helicopters flew over the crowd late last night and dropped fliers exhorting them to renounce violence and end their sit-in.

Mr Morsi’s opponents have also called for demonstrations today, though their protests are attracting far fewer people now that they have achieved their aim of bringing him down.

Interim prime minister Hazem el-Beblawi has appointed most key ministers, including US-educated economist Ahmed Galal as finance minister.

His job will be to rescue an economy wrecked by two and a half years of political turmoil since autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular uprising in 2011.

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

Mr Beblawi’s challenge is setting up a government that will appear inclusive without the Brotherhood.

Reuters

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