(Update: The Egyptian presidency said early Tuesday that President Obama had spoken by phone with President Mohammed Morsi about recent developments.)
(CNSNews.com) – As Egypt’s turmoil continued overnight, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo said it will remain closed for a third consecutive day on Tuesday, and President Obama said that ensuring U.S. diplomatic facilities there are protected is his “number-one priority.”
Demonstrators who are calling for President Mohammed Morsi to step down by Tuesday celebrated after the military leadership threatened to intervene if Egyptian politicians did not “meet the people's demands” in 48 hours. The statement was viewed by many as an ultimatum to the Muslim Brotherhood government, although a military spokesman later denied it was a coup threat.
In other late-breaking developments, Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr became the fifth cabinet minister to resign in two days; a former armed forces chief of staff said he was resigning as an advisor to Morsi and throwing his support behind opposition protestors; and the Salafist Nour party, once allied to the Muslim Brotherhood, also joined calls for early elections.
Earlier, at least eight people were killed when protestors stormed and looted the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters. The main opposition parties condemned the violence.
Despite repeated denials over recent months, the Obama administration continues to draw criticism from opponents of Morsi who accuse it of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Citing that claim, senior opposition figures refused to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry during a visit last March in which he announced the release of $250 million in aid to Egypt.
U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson has become a lightning rod for some of that anger. In the run-up to the massive demonstrations now underway, Patterson drew strong criticism for saying that she and the U.S. government were “deeply skeptical” that the planned protests would be fruitful.
Among posters visible in the massive street demonstrations are some bearing the ambassador’s likeness and advising her to “go home.”
One large banner photographed in the crowd featured photos of Obama and Patterson, accusing them by name of “support[ing] terrorism in Egypt.” Another carried a blown-up news photo of Patterson meeting with Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide Mohammed Badie last year, with a tag line, “We know what you did last summer.”
In Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell cited the pictures of the ambassador and said it was “reprehensible that people are sort of personalizing this.”
There was “a lack of understanding on the part of some that we really don’t take sides,” he said. “We’ve been consistent about that very publicly and privately going back some time, so we find that regrettable.”
Ventrell said Patterson remains in Cairo and that the embassy “continues to operate.”
The embassy has been closed to the public since Sunday, however, and on Monday it announced that would extend to Tuesday.
The embassy repeated earlier advice that U.S. citizens should avoid areas where large gatherings may occur, “even demonstrations or events intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence.”
Last September the embassy compound’s walls were breached by anti-U.S. protestors who destroyed an American flag and raised a black banner stating, “There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.” That incident in Cairo occurred just hours before U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed during an armed attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
Among the many ramifications of the Benghazi attack was a renewed focus on security for American diplomats and diplomatic facilities abroad.
“Obviously, we’ve been watching these big protests,” Obama told reporters during a joint press conference with his Tanzanian counterpart in Dar-es-Salaam. “Our number-one priority has been making sure that our embassies and consulates are protected.”
Obama called for all sides to “show restraint,” and also alluded to claims of U.S. support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Our commitment to Egypt has never been around any particular individual or party,” he said. “Our commitment has been to a process.”
Obama said the Egyptian people “went through an election process that, by all accounts, were legitimate. And Mr. Morsi was elected. And the U.S. government’s attitude has been we would deal with a democratically-elected government.”