CAIRO — Egypt’s military-led government instructed security forces Wednesday to end two large sit-ins by supporters of the deposed Islamist president, a decree that risked a new round of violent convulsions in the country’s political crisis.
In a televised statement, the interim Cabinet said the Cairo sit-ins in support of the deposed president, Mohammed Morsi, were disruptive and represented “a threat to the Egyptian national security and an unacceptable terrorizing of citizens.”
Tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathizers have been occupying two large squares in Cairo — Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque and Nahdet Misr — to protest the July 3 ouster of Morsi, the country’s first freely elected president. The protesters have vowed to stay in the squares until he is released from detention and reinstated in office. That outcome has looked increasingly unlikely, as the interim authorities have expanded a crackdown on the Brotherhood and its affiliates and have moved to oust Islamists appointed by Morsi from government posts.
More than 140 pro-Morsi demonstrators in Cairo were killed by security forces in violent confrontations July 8 and last Saturday, further polarizing a country in the throes of its worst crisis since the revolution that toppled Morsi’s autocratic predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, in February 2011.
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Rights groups denounced the decree as a new provocation to violence. “Given the Egyptian security forces’ record of policing demonstrations with the routine use of excessive and unwarranted lethal force, this latest announcement gives a seal of approval to further abuse,” Amnesty International said on its website, calling the decree a “recipe for further bloodshed.”
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said the order will be carried out in gradual steps according to instructions from prosecutors. “I hope they resort to reason” and leave without authorities having to move in, he said in a telephone interview.
Ahmed Sobaie, spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, derided the Cabinet decision as “paving the way for another massacre.”
Organizers are portraying the sit-ins outside the Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque in eastern Cairo and the smaller one near Cairo University’s main campus as evidence of an enduring support base for Morsi’s once-dominant Muslim Brotherhood.
The interim Cabinet’s televised statement, read by the country’s minister of media, appeared intended to establish a legal basis for dispersing the sit-ins by force. The minister said the decree was necessary because of “the huge mandate given to the state by the people in dealing with the terrorism and the violence that threaten the dissolution of the state and the collapse of the homeland.”
The Obama administration expressed concern about the new decree. Deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said: “We have continued to urge the interim government officials and security forces to respect the right of peaceful assembly. That obviously includes sit-ins.”
On Tuesday, two Republican senators, Lindsey Graham and John McCain, frequent critics of President Obama, said he had asked them to visit Egypt next week to help persuade interim leaders to move forward with new elections and an inclusive government. The senators said they would convey a bipartisan message from the United States, which has regarded Egypt as a crucial Arab ally in the Middle East for decades and provides $1.5 billion in annual aid.
The decree came shortly after the interim authorities said they had referred the top spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, and two other senior Islamist figures to a criminal court on charges of incitement to murder. The step was seen as a further expansion of the crackdown on the Brotherhood.
Morsi has been detained by the military since he was overthrown and his whereabouts kept secret.