In Egypt, mounting tension between Islamists and military

As the US seeks to exert waning influence in Egypt, the standoff between Egypt's military and the Muslim Brotherhood of ousted President Mohamed Morsi veered closer to violence.

By , Correspondent

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    Supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in an encampment east of Cairo.
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Leading US and EU envoys were in Cairo today, attempting to find a way to reduce tensions between the Egyptian military and supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.

Their visit came as the country’s leading security body issued a new warning to Morsi supporters, saying their time to leave their protest camps peacefully is running out.

US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns has used his three-day visit to meet with representatives from all sides of an heavily polarized political spectrum. He rounded off his flurry of meetings today by holding talks with General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the leader of Egypt’s armed forces. Burns has also met with a delegation from the pro-Morsi camp.

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As Burns met with the country's top general, Egypt’s military-led National Defence Council turned up the temperature, telling demonstrators that they must abandon pro-Morsi encampments. Although “negotiations and mediation” would be given a chance, the council said in a statement, time for talk should be “defined and limited."

Tens of thousands of the former president’s supporters have spent the last month camped across two locations in eastern Cairo, demanding the reinstatement of Morsi, who was ousted by the military and arrested on July 3.

Two early morning attempts by police and military forces to clear the camps have resulted in the deaths of around 140 Morsi supporters. Fears are now growing over the possibility of a third state-led massacre in as many weeks if the security services move in again.

US role?

Many suspect that Burns’ visit has been timed to coincide with the mounting threat to the sit-ins. Last week, Egypt’s interim cabinet mandated the nation’s police force to disperse the camps and on Thursday the interior ministry offered “safe passage and protection” to those who leave of their own accord.

In recent days, the international diplomatic community has publicly aligned its efforts to bring a peaceful end to Egypt’s crisis. Burns is leading the diplomatic push, along with European Union envoy Bernardino Leon. The United Arab Emirates, which is offering significant financial support to the new government, has also dispatched foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed to take part in the talks.

Seeking to avert a new crisis, Gen. Sisi met with senior Islamist leaders on Friday night in the first official meeting of its kind.

“It was a meeting, not to strike a deal, but to send a message," said Major Ahmed Shabaan, a spokesman for the Egyptian Armed Forces. “There must be no violence from the protesters belonging to Morsi. Sisi promised that no violence would be used against them on the condition that they did not [act] violently.”

But Salafist preacher Mohamed Hassan, who attended the meeting, has said the promise not to disperse pro-Morsi sit-ins forcibly came without preconditions.

The meeting took place hours after US Secretary of State John Kerry offered America’s strongest support to date for the military takeover that ousted Morsi from power, one month ago today.

"The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people, all of whom were afraid of a descent into chaos, into violence," Kerry told GEO TV in Pakistan. "And the military did not take over, to the best of our judgment - so far."

No coup?

Kerry’s comments represented the strongest signal yet that the Obama administration supports the takeover and will not call it a coup. Under US law, this would require America to halt an annual aid package of $1.5 billion.

The Obama administration has shown little desire to tinker with the flow of aid, much of which goes to the Egyptian military. The apparent limit of US condemnation for the military’s actions came late last month when the delivery of four American-made F-16 fighter jets was postponed.

Although this rap on the wrist was seen as largely symbolic, it still drew criticism from Egypt's top brass. In an interview with the Washington Post published yesterday, General Sisi dismissed the move, saying it was “not the way to deal with a patriotic military."

“You left the Egyptians. You turned your back on the Egyptians, and they won’t forget that,” he said, addressing the US government. “Now you want to continue turning your backs on Egyptians?”

As Burn’s visit to Cairo suggests, America is still keen to flex its shrinking muscles and exert influence where it can. But meanwhile, the crackdown on Egypt’s former leaders continues apace. A Cairo appeals court today set a date for the trail of leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Six of the movement’s stalwarts, including Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie and his deputy Khairat El-Shater, will stand trial on August 25, charged with inciting violent protests.

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