July 12, 2013
Hardening Split in Egypt as Islamists Stage Huge Demonstrations
By BEN HUBBARD
CAIRO — Hundreds of thousands of Egyptian Islamists and other supporters of Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first freely elected president, who was ousted and detained by the military last week, filled public squares in Cairo and other cities on Friday in an intensified campaign aimed at returning him to power. The United States also dialed up its criticism, calling on Egypt’s interim authorities to release Mr. Morsi.
The protests underlined both the size of the opposition to the military’s intervention on July 3 and the hardening split over the country’s direction. Mr. Morsi’s supporters blocked major thoroughfares in parts of Cairo, snarling traffic and raising the prospect of further escalation, while Tahrir Square remained the domain of the anti-Morsi side.
In Washington, a State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said the United States concurred with a call made by Germany for Mr. Morsi to be released. Asked about Germany’s position at a daily briefing, she said, “We do agree.”
Ms. Psaki declined to specify whether the United States still recognized Mr. Morsi as the president of Egypt. But her response about his detention appeared to reflect growing concern by the Obama administration over the interim government’s progress toward new elections and an inclusive democratic system.
Mr. Morsi’s supporters have denounced what they view as the Obama administration’s tepid criticisms, and some have accused the United States of quietly approving his ouster. The Obama administration has refrained from calling the military intervention a coup, which could trigger an American law requiring a cutoff of aid to Egypt.
Mr. Morsi has been held incommunicado in an undisclosed location since his removal after millions protested against him. Egypt’s generals have said he is in custody for his safety. But the interim government has also signaled that it may be preparing to prosecute him.
With many of Mr. Morsi’s Islamist supporters finding new motivation during the holy month of Ramadan, which started this week, the largest pro-Morsi sit-in, in the Cairo suburb of Nasr City, swelled to take on an increasing air of durability.
Loudspeakers attached to lampposts blasted the voices of speakers, singers and Koran reciters on a central stage. Hundreds of tents have been set up on traffic islands and on side streets, where fasting protesters slept on blankets, sheets of cardboard or asphalt streets in the midday heat.
The sit-in also serves as a safe zone of sorts for Muslim Brotherhood leaders and other members who are among the hundreds who have been put on wanted lists by the authorities since Mr. Morsi’s ouster.
Speaking in a mosque at the center of the sit-in, Mohamed el-Beltagy, a former Parliament member and Brotherhood leader, laughed off his status as a wanted man, but said he had not left the encampment in days.
“I’m not scared, but I stay here for the revolution,” he said.
The authorities have accused him and other Brotherhood leaders of inciting violence against the army.
Mr. Beltagy rejected statements by the new interim prime minister that held out the possibility of ministerial positions to Muslim Brotherhood members.
“They are shooting us and calling us terrorists who belong in prison, so how can they offer us ministerial portfolios?” he said.
Denying that there were any negotiations between Brotherhood leaders and the military-led interim government to end the crisis, he said the Brotherhood would accept early presidential elections, but only if Mr. Morsi was returned to power.
“We have no objection to early presidential elections after the return of the president and the Shura Council and the Constitution,” he said, referring to the upper house of Parliament. “We have no problem with early presidential elections, but under elected institutions, not under a tank.”
Despite the large number of demonstrators, many supporters of Mr. Morsi said they had started to fear that just holding large protests would not be enough to persuade the army to restore him to the presidency. The military so far has paid little heed to their demands, and their refusal to engage with the new leaders raises the possibility that they will be left out of the new order.
Seeking to escalate their campaign, Mr. Morsi’s supporters blocked at least two major thoroughfares near their encampment as darkness fell, cutting off traffic with rocks, tires, concrete blocks and metal barricades.
Sitting on the pavement behind one of the barriers, Mohamed Salah, 33, called the new tactic “peaceful escalation.”
“We are here because the military leaders have not paid any attention to us, so we are spreading out in the streets to show that we disagree with the coup,” he said.
Around the corner on the street that runs in front of the officers’ club of the Republican Guard, protesters were breaking pavement stones out of the sidewalk and stacking them into a makeshift wall across the street. The army killed more than 50 Morsi supporters in the same area on Monday.
Demonstrators supporting the army’s intervention collected in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 2011 revolution that toppled Mr. Morsi’s autocratic predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, and near the Presidential Palace.
“We had to show Morsi that we could get rid of him if we didn’t like him just like we got rid of the one before him,” said one demonstrator, Ahmed Ghazi, 35. “What the Egyptian people did is pure democracy.”
A few thousand pro-Morsi protesters later collected downtown in Ramses Square, where they blocked an exit ramp and then marched off down a major street.
Standing in front of his modest bookstore, Ibrahim Thabit, 52, watched the marchers pass and said he understood their point but worried about too much disruption. He had voted for Mr. Morsi but said he had been disappointed when the economy continued to sink.
He said he hoped the army would find a way to bridge the country’s political divide.
“We want to eat and drink and live in peace,” he said. “That is what is important for people.”
Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York.