Egyptian army prepares crackdown on pro-Morsi protests

The camps are the main flashpoints in the confrontation between the army, which toppled Mursi last month, and supporters who demand his reinstatement. Western and Arab mediators and some members of the Egyptian government have been trying to persuade the army to avoid using force to disperse the protesters, who at times can number as much as tens of thousands.

Any further violence would almost certainly deepen Egypt's political crisis and keep the government from dealing with vital issues such as the fragile economy. "State security troops will be deployed around the sit-ins by dawn as a start of procedures that will eventually lead to a dispersal," said a senior security source, adding that the first step will be to surround the camps. Another security source said the decision to take action, just after celebrations following the holy month of Ramadan, came after a meeting between the interior minister and his aides. 

Pro-Morsi protesters refuse to disperse

On Sunday, supporters of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi rallied to demand his reinstatement, amid last ditch efforts for reconciliation ahead of a threatened crackdown on protests. A large convoy of cars carrying pictures of the deposed president beeped their horns as they drove through a neighbourhood in east Cairo. Hundreds at a women's march in central Cairo chanted against army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who was behind Morsi's overthrow, shouting: "Sisi is a traitor, Sisi is a killer." 

Morsi loyalists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, have kept up two huge camps in Cairo to protest against the Islamist president's ouster by the military on July 3, with regular demonstrations around the country. They say nothing short of his reinstatement will persuade them to disperse, despite several warnings by the interim leaders that the camps will be dismantled after the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which was to end on Sunday.

In a sign of the mounting tensions, a brief overnight power cut at the main sit-in outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque struck panic among the pro-Morsi demonstrators, with some taking to social media to announce the assault had begun. Protest organisers told AFP that as the electricity went out, they reinforced their barricades, added sandbags to the entrances of the protest site, and sent volunteers to find out what was happening, only to be told it was a false alarm.

The main coalition of Morsi supporters, the Anti-Coup Alliance, said 10 marches would take off from various parts of the capital on Sunday "to defend the electoral legitimacy" of Egypt's first freely elected president. The fresh rallies came as Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's highest seat of learning, called for reconciliation talks in the latest of a string of attempts to find a peaceful solution to the political deadlock. Al-Azhar's Grand Imam, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, is to begin contacts with political factions on Monday aimed at convincing them to sit down to talks later this week, state media reported.

"Al-Azhar has been studying all the proposals for reconciliation put forward by political and intellectual figures to come up with a compromise formula for all Egyptians," Tayyeb's adviser, Mahmud Azab, told the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper. But the Muslim Brotherhood is unlikely to accept such an invitation after Al-Azhar sided with the military over Morsi's ouster. Tayyeb appeared with army chief Sisi when he announced on July 3 that Morsi had been deposed and laid out a political roadmap for Egypt's transition which provides for new elections in 2014.

US, EU calls for end to bloodshed

Morsi's turbulent single year in power polarised Egyptians and his ousting by the military only deepened divisions. The Islamist leader was widely criticised for concentrating power in Brotherhood hands and under his tenure Egypt saw political divisions spill out onto the streets in deadly clashes while the economy tumbled. On June 30, millions took to the streets to demand Morsi's ouster, openly calling on the army to remove him. The interim leadership is now under immense pressure at home to crack down on the pro-Morsi protests, and immense pressure from the international community to avoid bloodshed.

Senior US, EU and Arab envoys flew into Cairo in recent weeks to try to persuade the two sides to find a peaceful way out of the crisis. But the government vowed on Wednesday to clear the Islamist protest camps, saying foreign mediation had failed. More than 250 people have been killed in clashes since Morsi's ouster, following days of mass rallies demanding his resignation. The government had already ordered police to end the pro-Morsi protests, which it described as a "national security threat."

Meanwhile, the army pursued a campaign against militants in the lawless Sinai peninsula, with the latest air strikes leaving 25 people dead and injured, the military said. In the town of Touma, witnesses confirmed eight people were killed, with their funerals held Sunday. Militants based mainly in north Sinai near Israel's border have escalated attacks on security forces and other targets since Morsi's ouster. – Reuters – AFP

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Michael Georgy
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