Supporters of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi prepared for confrontation yesterday, and the US said Egypt’s military had been “restoring democracy” when it drove him from office.
Thousands were gathered in two Muslim Brotherhood camps in Cairo, defying warnings from the new army-backed government to abandon their protest or face action from security forces.
At the main Rabaa al-Adawiya camp yesterday morning, young men wearing crash helmets and brandishing sticks mounted a first line of defense behind barricades of sandbags and bricks.
International diplomats, rights groups and Egyptian religious leaders appealed to authorities to avoid bloodshed.
Political sources said there had been intense debate within the Cabinet on the wisdom of the security forces taking action.
Almost 300 people have died in political violence since Morsi was overthrown on July 3, including 80 of his supporters shot dead by security forces in a single incident on Saturday last week.
Morsi, an Islamist who became Egypt’s first freely elected president in June 2011, had faced weeks of street demonstrations against his rule. Many Egyptians were frustrated by his failure to get to grips with social and economic problems and feared he was leading the country towards stricter Islamist control.
He is now being held by the military at a secret location.
The turmoil has left Egypt more polarized than at any time since US-backed former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011.
The new civilian government installed by the military received a boost on Thursday from the US, which had previously given mixed messages about events in a country that has long been a bulwark of Washington’s Middle East policy.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Pakistan that Egypt’s army had been “restoring democracy” when it toppled Morsi.
“The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people, all of whom were afraid of a desendance into chaos, into violence,” he told Pakistan’s GEO TV. “And the military did not take over, to the best of our judgment so — so far.”
The US has avoided calling Morsi’s overthrow a “coup” — a move that would have triggered a cut-off in the US$1.3 billion of US aid the Egyptian military receives each year.
However, Kerry has called on Egypt to respect the right of peaceful protest, including the pro-Morsi rallies.
EU envoy Bernardino Leon, who is in Cairo trying to defuse tensions, said on Thursday the EU would not easily accept the use of violence to break up the protest camp.
Efforts should be made to reach a political solution by involving moderates on both sides, he said.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the government should halt any plans to disperse the Muslim Brotherhood camp by force.
“To avoid another bloodbath, Egypt’s civilian rulers need to ensure the ongoing right of protesters to assemble peacefully, and seek alternatives to a forcible dispersal of the crowds,” said Nadim Houry, HRW’s deputy Middle East director.
It criticized security forces for using excessive force.
Army spokesman Colonel Ahmed Ali said the military wanted no political role but was acting “to support the Egyptian people in their revolution.”
In an interview with al-Sharq al-Awsat Pan-Arab newspaper, he said people had the right to demonstrate peacefully.
“But these demonstrations have departed from a peaceful context and tend toward violent acts in many cases,” he said.