‘Disastrous results’ if no talks, Egypt’s army warns
Egypt's powerful army joined calls for dialogue on Saturday, a day after the opposition rejected an offer from President Mohammed Morsi to hold talks on the political crisis that has polarised the nation and sparked weeks of deadly clashes.
Egypt’s armed forces lent its weight to President Mohammed Morsi’s calls for negotiations on Saturday with its first public statement since anti-Morsi protests erupted more than two weeks ago.
"The path of dialogue is the best and only way to reach agreement and achieve the interests of the nation and its citizens," the statement from the armed forces said.
"The opposite of that will take us into a dark tunnel with disastrous results -- and that is something we will not allow," the army said, adding that it would take measures to protect state institutions, if necessary.
The statement does not, however, signal that Egypt’s powerful army is making a return to politics, a military source told Reuters.
Tens of thousands of Egyptian protesters besieged the presidential palace again on Friday even as Vice President Mahmoud Mekky said a December 15 referendum on a constitution that liberals oppose could be put off if a delay posed no legal challenges. That concession, however, only partly meets a list of opposition demands that include scrapping a November 22 decree that expanded Morsi’s powers.
A meeting was expected to go ahead on Saturday despite the absence of most opposition factions. “Tomorrow everything will be on the table,” a presidential source said of the talks.
“The people want the downfall of the regime” and “Leave, leave,” crowds chanted after bursting through barbed wire barricades and climbing on tanks guarding the palace of Egypt’s first freely elected president.
Their slogans echoed those used in a popular revolt that toppled Morsi’s predecessor Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
The opposition has demanded that Morsi rescind his November 22 decree giving himself wide powers and delay the December referendum on a new constitution drafted by an Islamist-led assembly, which critics say fails to reflect the aspirations of a cross-section of Egyptian society.
The state news agency reported that the election committee had postponed the start of voting for Egyptians abroad until Wednesday, instead of Saturday as planned. It did not say whether this would affect the timing of voting in Egypt.
Ahmed Said, leader of the liberal Free Egyptians Party, told Reuters that delaying expatriate voting was designed to seem like a concession but would not change the opposition’s stance.
He said the core opposition demand was to freeze Morsi’s November decree and “to reconsider the formation and structure of the constituent assembly”, not simply to postpone the referendum.
The opposition organised marches converging on the palace which elite Republican Guard units had ringed with tanks and barbed wire on Thursday after violence between supporters and opponents of Morsi killed seven people and wounded 350.
Islamists, who had obeyed a military order for demonstrators to leave the palace environs, held funerals on Friday at Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque for six Morsi partisans who were among the dead. “With our blood and souls, we sacrifice to Islam,” they chanted.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s spokesman, Mahmoud Ghozlan, told Reuters that if the opposition continued to shun dialogue “it shows that their intention is to remove Morsi from the presidency, and not to cancel the decree or the constitution as they claim”.
In a speech late on Thursday, Morsi again refused to retract his decree or cancel the constitutional referendum.
The National Salvation Front, the main opposition coalition, said it would not join the dialogue. The group’s coordinator, Mohamed ElBaradei, dismissed the offer as “arm twisting and imposition of a fait accompli”.
Murad Ali, spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said the opposition reaction was disappointing. “What exit to this crisis do they have other than dialogue?” he asked.
The worst political crisis the country has seen since Morsi took office in June is dimming Egypt’s hopes of stability and economic recovery in the tumultuous period following the overthrow of Mubarak.
The turmoil has exposed the competing visions for a post-Mubarak Egypt. On the one hand are Morsi and his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group suppressed for decades by Mubarak's army backers. On the other are Egypt's more secular groups and the Christian minority, who fear religious conservatives want to squeeze out other voices and restrict social freedoms.
Caught in the middle are many of Egypt’s 83 million people, who are desperate for an end to the political turbulence threatening their livelihoods in an economy under severe strain.
“We are so tired, by God,” said Mohamed Ali, a labourer. “I did not vote for Morsi nor anyone else. I only care about bringing food to my family, but I haven’t had work for a week.”
A long political standoff will make it harder for Morsi’s government to tackle the crushing budget deficit and stave off a balance-of-payments crisis. Austerity measures, especially cuts in costly fuel subsidies, seem inevitable to meet the terms of a $4.8 billion IMF loan that Egypt hopes to clinch this month.
US President Barack Obama told Morsi on Thursday of his “deep concern” about casualties in this week’s clashes and said “dialogue should occur without preconditions”.
The upheaval in the most populous Arab nation worries the United States, which has given billions of dollars in military and other aid since Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979.
Ayman Mohamed, 29, a protester at the palace, said Morsi should scrap the draft constitution and heed popular demands.
“He is the president of the republic. He can’t just work for the Muslim Brotherhood,” Mohamed said of the eight-decade-old Islamist movement that propelled Morsi from obscurity to power.
(FRANCE24 with wires)