By Tom Perry and Alastair Macdonald
Islamist allies of Egypt’s ousted president, Mohamed Mursi, called on people to protest on Friday to express outrage at his overthrow by the army and to reject a planned interim government backed by their liberal opponents.
In the Sinai peninsula near Israel, gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades at army checkpoints guarding an airport and rocketed a police station near the border with the Palestinian territories. One soldier was killed and two wounded, a security source said. The authorities declared a state of emergency in Suez and South Sinai provinces.
Dozens of people were wounded in clashes in Mursi’s Nile Delta home city on Thursday, raising fears of more of the violence in which several dozen have died in the past month.
How the army deals with any trouble will help determine future support for Cairo from the United States and other international powers.
Concern that the generals have carried out a military coup against Egypt’s first freely elected leader has left Washington reviewing the $1.5 billion in mostly military aid it annually gives Egypt. U.S. law bars aid for countries where the military has toppled an elected government in a coup. Washington has so far avoided using that label.
The planned protests have the slogan “Friday of Rejection”.
Outside the Rabaa Adaweya mosque in a Cairo suburb, where Mursi supporters have gathered over the last week, the army deployed extra armoured vehicles several hundred metres from makeshift barricades. Thousands of people milled around the area, while a group of about 50 men shouted pro-Mursi slogans.
“Down, down with military rule!” they chanted. “We call for jihad in the whole country.”
In the skies above the teeming city, the airforce staged fly-pasts, with jets leaving red, white and black smoke streams – representing the Egyptian flag – behind them in a show of force the military has employed frequently since Mursi’s ouster.
A military source said: “We will continue to secure the places of protest with troops, and jets if necessary, to make sure the pro- and anti-Mursi demonstrators don’t confront each other. We will let them demonstrate and go where they want.”
Mursi’s political opponents insist there was no coup.
Rather, the army heeded the “will of the people” in forcing the president out. Millions rallied on Sunday to protest over a collapsing economy and political deadlock, in which Mursi had failed to build a broad consensus after a year in office.
It was not immediately clear whether the violence in the long-unstable Sinai was directly linked to the overthrow of Musri. Early on Friday, security sources said Islamist gunmen opened fire on El-Arish airport, close to the border with the Gaza Strip and Israel, and at three military checkpoints.
A police station in Rafah on the Gaza border was hit by rockets, wounding several soldiers. Security forces closed the border crossing. State media said it would reopen on Saturday.
News of the state of emergency in Suez and South Sinai caused the price of Brent Crude to spike by more than $1.50, a reminder of Egypt’s global strategic importance astride the Suez canal. The price subsided after reports that shipping on the canal was unaffected.
After a busy day of diplomacy by concerned Obama administration officials interrupting their Independence Day holiday in Washington, the Egyptian armed forces command issued a late-night statement guaranteeing rights to protest and free expression, and pledging not to pursue arbitrary measures against any political group.
The uncontroversial phrasing belied a busy 24 hours since the military chief suspended the constitution, detained Mursi and oversaw the swearing in of the chief justice of the constitutional court as Egypt’s interim head of state.
In addition to Mursi, the country’s first freely elected leader, several senior figures in his Muslim Brotherhood were held, security sources said. Prosecutors were investigating various charges, including incitement to violence and, in the case of Mursi himself, insulting the judiciary.
Television channels owned by or seen as sympathetic to the Brotherhood were abruptly taken off air. The state printer did not run off its party newspaper on Thursday or Friday.
“These media paint a different picture of the situation, which the army does not want people to see,” said Islam Taqfiq from the media committee at the Brotherhood’s political wing.
COUP OR NO COUP?
In Zagazig, the Nile Delta city where Mursi has a family home, 80 people were injured. Witnesses said the army moved in to seal the area after an attack on pro-Mursi protesters by men on motorcycles led to clashes with sticks, knives and bottles.
For a movement that has been banned and politically oppressed for most of its 85-year history, such developments have reinforced impressions among the Islamists that a “deep state”, once loyal to fallen autocrat Hosni Mubarak and his army-backed predecessors, is still determined to crush it.
Washington, the armed forces’ longtime sponsor, has voiced concern for human rights, but also for stability. Egypt’s peace with Israel and control of the Suez Canal give it a strategic importance beyond its 84 million people.
Washington, along with Middle Eastern allies from Israel to Saudi Arabia, are not lamenting the Brotherhood’s stunning reversal. The organisation has long represented many Arabs’ hopes for a better society but was found gravely wanting during Mursi’s year of missteps and rancorous division.
While avoiding the word “coup”, the White House said some on Obama’s national security team had contacted Egyptian officials “to convey the importance of a quick and responsible return of full authority to a democratically elected civilian government”.
Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, staying in a caretaker role after resigning from Mursi’s cabinet, spent the day reassuring ambassadors and speaking by phone to foreign officials, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
“He was worried about the status of human rights,” Amr said. “Understandably. I assured him there is no retribution, no acts of vengeance, that nobody will be treated outside the law.”
Amr said he conveyed the the message that there had been no “military coup”. The army had merely heeded the popular will.
Adli Mansour, the constitutional court chief justice sworn in as interim head of state on Thursday, has held out an olive branch to the Brotherhood, but a senior official in the Islamist movement said it would not work with “the usurper authorities”.
Another of its politicians said Mursi’s overthrow would push other groups, though not his own, to violent resistance.
The armed forces’ statement contained a warning to those Islamists planning to demonstrate on Friday.
“Excessive use of this right without reason could carry some negative implications, including blocking roads, delaying public benefits and destroying institutions, posing a threat to social peace, the national interest and damaging the security and economy in our precious Egypt.”
The Brotherhood renounced violence decades ago. Even among its allies who were engaged in armed struggle against Mubarak in the 1990s and beyond, there seems little appetite to resume it.
But Egypt does have troubles with militancy, not least in the largely empty Sinai peninsula, where radical Islamists with links to al Qaeda have become more active since Mubarak fell.
Mursi’s dramatic exit was greeted with delight by millions of jubilant people on the streets of Cairo and other cities on Wednesday evening, but there was simmering resentment among Egyptians who opposed the military intervention.
Following the swearing in of Mansour as interim head of state, the next step in the army’s road map back to democracy is the formation of an interim government in the next few days. One state newspaper said it should be ready on Sunday.
After that, a panel is to revise the constitution in order to hold parliamentary and presidential elections.
Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister, head of the Arab League and now liberal party leader, told Reuters he expected the full transition to elected institutions to take no more than 12 months and possibly just six. “This is doable,” he said.