Egypt's Interior Ministry warned supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi on Saturday for a second time to abandon their protest encampments as a senior U.S. diplomat was meeting with officials on both sides of the political divide to try to find a peaceful resolution to the standoff.
Egyptian authorities have outlined plans in recent days to break up the two main sit-ins by Morsi's supporters as they seek to end the political stalemate that has paralyzed the country since the military overthrew the Islamist leader on July 3. Morsi's backers say they will not disperse until he is returned to power, setting the stage for a potential bloody showdown if security forces move in on the two main sites that are home to tens of thousands of protesters.
In a bid to avoid more bloodshed, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns held talks Saturday with interim Egyptian President Adly Mansour as well as Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei. Burns, the No. 2 American diplomat, was also scheduled to meet with Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist allies. The Europeans Union's special envoy, Bernardino Leon, was also involved in the talks.
Amr Darag, one of the Brotherhood representatives who was expected to meet with Burns, told The Associated Press that the group and its allies are looking for "confidence-building measures" before they will come to the table for talks with their rivals. Such measures could include releasing detained Brotherhood leaders, unfreezing the group's assets, lifting the ban on its TV stations and ending violence against its protests.
Ahead of his visit, the State Department said Burns would be discussing "the importance of avoiding violence and helping to facilitate a peaceful and inclusive political process."
The trip by Burns, his second to Cairo since the military overthrew Morsi, comes amid heighted fears of more bloodshed after more than 80 Morsi supporters were killed in clashes with police a week ago near their main Cairo sit-in. In total, more than 280 people have been killed nationwide in political violence since Morsi's removal.
The ousted president's supporters have vowed to continue their protests until he is reinstated. They have held several mass rallies across the country and daily protests outside security buildings, demanding that the crackdown on Islamists stop. They have also kept up their vigils at two main sites: one outside the Rabaah al-Adawiya Mosque in eastern Cairo and another in a large square outside Cairo University's main campus.
But a month after Morsi's ouster, many Egyptians have grown weary of the protests, complaining that they snarl traffic, prolong the nation's instability and are calling for the authorities to put an end to the sit-ins.
On Friday, authorities outlined plans to break up the encampments, saying they would set up a cordon around the protest sites while at the same time offering "safe passage" to those willing to leave.
In nationally televised remarks Saturday, Interior Ministry spokesman Hany Abdel-Latif again urged Morsi's supporters to end their protests, saying it would pave the way for the Brotherhood's return to an official role in the political process. He repeated the offer from the ministry, which is charge of police, to protect those who abandon the demonstrations.
The Brotherhood's role in Egypt's post-Morsi politics is one of the most pressing questions in the country.
In his first visit to Cairo last month, Burns signaled that while Washington was calling for an inclusive transition, it had moved on from Morsi and his Brotherhood group. But he also stressed that Egypt's "second chance" at democracy could not happen without the Brotherhood's participation.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, who met Burns on Saturday, said Egyptian officials have made clear to their Western counterparts "that there is no moving back" and that the roadmap adopted by the country's military-backed interim leaders, which calls for elections next year, is open to the Brotherhood for participation.
"The roadmap adopted is the roadmap for this country for the upcoming period," he told reporters after meeting Burns. "Ceasing incitement and violence is, I believe, an extremely important step to take if we have any chance at achieving reconciliation in the short-term."
While Egypt's interim leaders have voiced an interest in reconciliation, they have simultaneously pursued a crackdown on the Brotherhood and its allies, arresting its senior leadership and shuttering their television stations.
In remarks published in the state-run Ahram newspaper Saturday, interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi said the United States is mostly focused on how to restore stability to Egypt.
"I don't think the United States was fond of the Muslim Brotherhood or wanted them to come (to power), and I don't think it is happy either to see them out of the picture now" he was quoted as saying "All that is asked now is that the situation stabilizes."
Morsi's supporters say their sit-ins are peaceful protests. The Interior Ministry alleges that some of the protests' participants are involved in "killings, torture and abductions." Last weekend, the ministry said 11 bodies were found near both protest sites, with some showing signs of torture. It is not clear who was behind the killings.
The London-based rights group Amnesty International also said it had testimony of alleged killings and torture at the hands of Morsi supporters inside the sit-ins, including a witness who said he saw one man stabbed and another have his throat cut.
In a new allegation, Egypt's state news agency reported Saturday that a 25 year-old worker was detained and violently beaten at one of the sit-ins. It quoted a security official as saying that the young man, identified Ahmed Abdel-Aaty Mahmoud, was found late Friday near a military factory south of Cairo with severe bruises and injuries. He told police he was abducted two days ago by pro-Morsi protesters who were participating in a march after he criticized them.