Egypt’s military tightens grip as deadline expires

AP, CAIRO

Thu, Jul 04, 2013 - Page 1

Egypt’s military moved to tighten its control on key institutions yesterday, putting officers in the newsroom of state TV, in preparation for an almost certain push to remove the country’s Islamist president when an afternoon ultimatum expires.

For the second time in Egypt’s tumultuous two-and-a-half years of upheaval, the powerful army appears to be positioned to remove the country’s leader. However, this time, it would be ousting a democratically elected president, the first in Egypt’s history — making its move potentially explosive.

Just before the deadline, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, inaugurated a year ago after the 2011 fall of his autocratic predecessor Hosni Mubarak, repeated his vows not to step down in the face of millions of protesters in the streets in the biggest anti-government rallies the country has seen.

His Islamist supporters have vowed to resist what they call a coup against democracy, and have also taken to the streets by the tens of thousands. At least 39 people have been killed in clashes since Sunday, raising fears the crisis could further explode into violence,

In a last minute statement before the deadline, Morsi again rejected the military’s intervention, saying abiding by his electoral legitimacy was the only way to prevent violence. He criticized the military for “taking only one side.”

“One mistake that cannot be accepted, and I say this as president of all Egyptians, is to take sides,” he said in the statement issued by his office. “Justice dictates that the voice of the masses from all squares should be heard.”

He proposed a consensus government as a way out of the country’s crisis.

“The presidency envisions the formation of a consensus coalition government to oversee the next parliamentary election,” his office said in a statement on Facebook.

Morsi reiterated his call for a national dialogue and the formation of a panel to amend the country’s controversial Islamist-drafted constitution, but insisted he would stay on as president.

He said there was a “clear roadmap which is based on constitutional legitimacy ... and includes the formation of a temporary coalition government based on national participation to oversee the coming phase.”

“There would be an agreement from all political trends over the [choice of] prime minister,” his office said.

As the ultimatum expired, thousands of anti-Morsi protesters in Tahrir Square in central Cairo let off fireworks, cheered and waved Egyptian flags in celebration.

There was no immediate word from the armed forces, and a spokesman said no fixed time had been set for a statement.

Egyptian blogger Su Zee tweeted: “And in typical Egyptian fashion, #egypt is late for its own coup.”

The free electing of a president had been one of the aspirations of the 2011 revolt that toppled Mubarak. Morsi’s opponents say they want to remove a president who has lost his election legitimacy by trying to monopolize power with Islamists — and that if it takes his army intervention to bring in new leadership and put the country on a more democratic path, so be it.

However, at the main pro-Morsi protest in Cairo, a hard-line cleric Magdy Hussein read a statement to the crowds of thousands, saying that any move against Morsi would be considered “a full coup.”

“Wake up el-Sissi, Morsi is my president,” the crowds chanted outside the Rabia al-Adawiya Moqsue. “We will not bring back the military rule.”

“Will not happen, will not happen,” they shouted.

The army has insisted it is not carrying out a coup, but acting on the will of the people to clear the way for a new leadership. However, yesterday it clearly was positioning itself to maintain control during any unrest sparked by a move on Morsi.

The military beefed up its presence inside the mammoth headquarters of state television on the banks of the Nile River in central Cairo. Crack troops were deployed in news-production areas. Officers from the army’s media department moved inside the newsroom and were monitoring output, though not yet interfering, staffers said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the arrangements.

The state TV is run by the information minister, a Muslim Brotherhood member put in the post by Morsi, and its coverage had largely been in favor of the government. However, already in the past two days, the coverage saw a marked shift, with more balanced reporting showing the anti-Morsi protests along with pro-Morsi ones. State radio has seen a similar shift.

The authoritative, state-run al-Ahram newspaper — which also seemed to be following a military line — reported that the military had placed several leaders of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood under surveillance and issued a foreign travel ban on the Islamist group’s top leaders.

Security officials at Cairo’s international airport said the travel ban covered among others the Brotherhood’s former leader Mahdi Akef and the group’s senior official Mohammed el-Beltagi and the leader of the Islamist Wasat party, Abou Ela Madi, and his deputy Essam Sultan.

Additional reporting by AFP and Reuters