Egyptian factions remain defiant during Ashton visit

Europe’s chief diplomat meets members of army regime and Muslim Brotherhood


Europe’s top diplomat shuttled between new Egypt’s rulers and the Muslim Brotherhood today in a mission to pull the country back from more bloodshed, but both sides were unyielding after 80 Islamist supporters were gunned down.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, making her second visit in 12 days as one of the few outsiders able to speak to both sides, made no public comment.

Supporters and opponents of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi left no doubt about the depth of polarisation in the Arab world’s most populous nation. “It’s very simple, we are not going anywhere,” said Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad, making clear the movement intends to defy government orders to abandon a protest vigil by thousands of followers demanding Mr Morsi’s return.

“We are going to increase the protest,” he told Reuters. “Someone has to put sense into this leadership.”

Backers of the military that deposed Mr Morsi on July 3rd were equally unbending, despite Saturday’s dawn carnage when security forces shot dead at least 80 Brotherhood supporters after a day of rival mass rallies.

“We asked [Ms Ashton], would you accept an armed sit-in under your roof?” said Mahmoud Badr, a leader of the Tamarud youth movement that mobilised huge protests against Mr Morsi before the army moved against him. “What if al Qaeda had a sit-in in a European country? Would you leave it be?” he asked reporters after meeting Ms Ashton, echoing the army’s branding of its opponents as terrorists.

Raising the prospect of more bloodshed erupting during Ms Ashton’s visit, the Brotherhood said it would march again this evening from its month-old vigil at a mosque in northern Cairo towards offices of the interior ministry.

The violence has raised global anxiety that the army may move to crush the Brotherhood, a movement which emerged from decades in the shadows to win power in elections after Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising against Hosni Mubarak.

The White House, treading a fine line with a pivotal Arab ally and recipient of $1.3 billion a year in US military aid, said today it “strongly condemns” Saturday’s bloodshed, and urged respect for the right to peaceful protest.

Ms Ashton met General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the army and the man behind the overthrow of Egypt’s first freely-elected president. She also held talks with members of the interim government installed by the army, and representatives of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood’s political wing.

Thousands of Brotherhood supporters have been camped out for a month at Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, demanding Mr Morsi’s reinstatement and defying threats by the army-backed authorities to remove them. Ms Ashton is expected to speak to reporters tomorrow.

Before arriving, she said she would press for a “fully inclusive transition process, taking in all political groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood”. Her leverage is limited. The United States is Egypt’s chief Western backer and source of military hardware, though the EU is the biggest civilian aid donor to the country, a strategic bridge between the Middle East and North Africa.

The EU has attempted to mediate in the political crisis over the past six months as Egyptians have grown increasingly suspicious of US involvement. President Barack Obama delayed delivery last week of four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt, in a gesture of displeasure at the turn of events.

Mr Morsi has been in detention since he was ousted and the military-backed interim government has placed him under investigation on charges that include murder. The handling of his case by the military suggests it believes it has the support of a big majority of Egyptians.

Army chief Gen Sisi has emerged as the public face of the new order, enjoying fawning coverage in Egyptian media and sowing doubts about the military’s promise to hand over to full civilian rule with a “road map” to parliamentary elections in about six months.