(CNSNews.com) – As Egypt counted the cost of the deadliest day of violence since the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, both the military-backed interim government and the Muslim Brotherhood signaled an intention to escalate the crisis despite appeals from the U.S. for them to “step back from the brink.”
Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim warned that a month-long sit-in by supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi would be “dealt with soon.” A large protest camp is located near the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in northern Cairo, and another in Giza's Nahda Square, several miles to the south-west.
Adding to indications that a crackdown may be looming, Egypt’s military-installed interim president authorized the interim prime minister Sunday to empower the military to arrest civilians. Critics have already accused the military of actions reminiscent of the Mubarak era.
If the military does act to shut down the protest camps it will do so in direct defiance of an appeal from Washington. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement Saturday “it is essential that the security forces and the interim government respect the right of peaceful protest, including the ongoing sit-in demonstrations.”
Morsi supporters, many of them hardline Islamists, have vowed to maintain the sit-ins until the elected president is reinstated, and any large-scale attempt to clear the protest sites by force will likely result in more bloodshed. More than 70 Islamists were killed in clashes with security forces near the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque on Saturday; both sides are blaming the other for the violence, the second mass killing of protestors in three weeks.
Upping the ante further, Morsi supporters in Nahda Square were quoted by the Al-Masry al-Youm daily as threatening to attack Egypt’s power stations. Early on Monday several thousand protesters at the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in threatened to march on the military intelligence headquarters several miles away, but turned back before getting far.
Both sides in the deepening dispute have thus far disregarded calls for calm from the U.S., the European Union and the Arab League. The armed forces’ snubbing of U.S. appeals is particularly jarring given the long history of military-to-military relations and billions of dollars in U.S. military aid over three decades.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke at the weekend to Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – the military chief who removed Morsi on July 3 – and urged restraint, steps to prevent further bloodshed, and “inclusivity” in the political transition, according to a Pentagon spokesman.
On Sunday, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, expressed concern about developments in Egypt but advised a cautious U.S. response.
“We’ve got to be careful that we don’t inject ourselves too much into the situation because it’ll probably make it worse,” he said on ABC News’ “This Week.”
“But we also need to send a very clear and very strong message to the Egyptian military that we’re not going to tolerate, from a friendly-nation relationship standpoint, the kind of violence that we saw over the weekend,” Chambliss added.
Hoping to mediate between the belligerents, E.U. foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton flew in to Cairo where she is expected to hold talks on Monday with al-Sisi, as well as the interim president and politicians affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ashton also hopes to see Morsi, although on a previous visit this month she was denied permission to do so.
Morsi has not been seen since he was ousted and his whereabouts are not publicly known. His continued detention despite U.S. calls for his release has been another indicator of the limits of U.S. leverage with the Egyptian military.
As early as July 3, the day of the military takeover, President Obama urged the military “to avoid any arbitrary arrests of President Morsi and his supporters.”
On Friday, Egyptian prosecutors announced criminal charges against Morsi which the MENA state news agency said included collaborating with the Palestinian terrorist group, Hamas during the 2011 uprising against Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood said the charges were politically motivated.