Egypt on edge ahead of rival rallies
26 July 2013, 13:00
Cairo - Tense Egypt braced on Friday for a showdown in the
streets between supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi and his
army-backed opponents, who have called rival rallies across the Arab world's
most populous country.
Tensions soared when the military reportedly gave Morsi's
backers until the end of Friday to end sit-in protests they began after the
army deposed the Islamist president on 3 July.
Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and allied Islamist groups have
vowed to press their protests until he is reinstated and have sharpened the
rhetoric by warning of "civil war", while calling for a huge turnout
on the streets on Friday.
Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had earlier in the week set
the scene for a potential showdown by calling for mass Friday rallies to give
him a mandate, he said, to counter "terrorism and violence".
Western nations are watching the crisis in Egypt with
growing unease, fearing the military's vow to return the nation to democracy
may be little more than a fig leaf to mask a prolonged power grab.
The United States has refused to term the army's overthrow
of Morsi a "coup," which would trigger an automatic freeze of some
$1.5 billion in aid.
But it did finally send the interim leaders a veiled warning
on Wednesday by suspending the delivery of four promised F-16 fighter jets.
"The interim government's strategy clearly consists of
politically sidelining the Muslim Brotherhood until the elections," said
German Middle East expert Michael Lueders.
He voiced fears Friday's rallies could explode into violence
that could determine the nation's direction, saying Sisi was "playing a
dangerous game" given the deep polarisation.
Use of excessive force
Although Egypt's military has insisted it was not targeting
Morsi's supporters in its call for the rallies, the potential for bloodshed is
large in a country that has been convulsed by violence in the past three weeks,
with some 200 people killed since Morsi's ouster.
London-based rights group Amnesty International criticised
Sisi's call for rallies, in a statement Thursday.
"Given the security forces' routine use of excessive
force, such a move is likely to lead to yet more unlawful killings," said
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty's deputy director of its Middle East and North
Police said they would deploy in numbers to prevent
incidents, as Morsi's camp sought to defuse tension by proposing a three-stage
roadmap that would start with confidence-building steps.
Egypt's military, however, has upped the ante by setting a
48-hour deadline, which expires late on Friday, after which it will decisively
deal with "violence and terrorism," according to a statement posted
on a military-linked Facebook account.
Once the deadline expires, it said, "the strategy for
dealing with violence and terrorism will change... appropriately to guarantee
security and stability".
A senior army official told AFP the statement did not
reflect the military's point of view, although it appeared on a "page with
links to the armed forces".
"The 48-hour ultimatum is a political invitation,"
the officer said. "It doesn't mean after 48 hours we are going to crack
Many see the comments, however, as a warning that the
security forces are planning to move in against pro-Morsi protesters who have
been camped outside Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque since his ouster.
On Thursday, the fugitive leader of the Muslim Brotherhood,
Mohamed Badie, sharpened the tone by urging Egyptians to make a "stand for
freedom and legitimacy, and against the bloody coup", although he insisted
this should be done peacefully.
Senior Brotherhood leader Essam al-Erian said Morsi
loyalists would not be intimidated by the army chief's call for mass rallies.
"Your threat will not prevent millions from continuously protesting,"
Erian wrote on Facebook.
On a more conciliatory note, Hisham Qandil, prime minister
before Morsi was toppled, on Thursday proposed a three-stage roadmap that would
start with confidence-building steps.
In a video recording posted on YouTube, the former premier
said both sides should refrain from marches and hold rallies only in fixed
He also called for the release of prisoners detained in the
days leading up to Morsi's ouster by the military, and those detained since.
A delegation should be allowed to visit Morsi, detained by
the army since his overthrow, to check on his health, he added.
The UN chief Ban Ki-moon has demanded that Morsi and his
high-level backers "be released or have their cases reviewed transparently
without delay," said deputy UN spokesperson Eduardo del Buey.