By Maggie Fick and Yasmine Saleh
The first senior U.S. official to visit Egypt since the army toppled its elected president was snubbed by both Islamists and their opponents on Monday, while huge crowds of supporters of the ousted leader demonstrated in the streets.
After meeting the interim head of state and the prime minister, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns insisted he was not in town “to lecture anyone”. But many on either side of Egypt’s divide suspect Washington of plotting against them.
A huge crowd of supporters of Islamist Mohamed Mursi poured into a square near a mosque in northeast Cairo carrying a giant Egyptian flag, banners and portraits of the detained leader.
Accusing the United States of backing a military coup, thousands of Mursi’s partisans have kept a vigil there since the days before the army toppled him on July 3, swelling to tens of thousands for mass protests every few days.
Monday’s was one of the biggest of the past week, with the crowd growing at nightfall after the end of the Ramadan fast.
Apart from the main protest at the mosque, thousands of Mursi supporters set up a tented camp outside Cairo University.
As the sun set, a teenage girl with a green headscarf took to a stage there, reading a poem and reciting from the Koran. Boys played soccer and fathers bounced toddlers on their shoulders. They chanted a call-and-response with a cleric asking God to strike down the armed forces chief who unseated Mursi.
The army warned demonstrators on Monday that it would respond with “the utmost severity and firmness and force” if they approached military bases. At least 92 people were killed in the days after Mursi was toppled, more than half of them shot by troops outside a barracks near the mosque a week ago.
Protests since then have been tense but mostly peaceful.
Mursi’s foes also called for a demonstration on Monday evening. Their rallies have been small since they achieved their objective of bringing him down.
Crisis in the Arab world’s most populous state, which has a peace treaty with Israel and controls the strategic Suez Canal, has alarmed allies in the region and the West.
Burns arrived in a divided capital where both sides are furious at the United States, which supports Egypt with $1.5 billion a year in mostly military aid.
“Only Egyptians can determine their future. I did not come with American solutions. Nor did I come to lecture anyone,” Burns told a brief news conference. “We will not try to impose our model on Egypt.”
Washington, never comfortable with the rise of Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood, has so far refused to say whether it views Mursi’s removal as a coup, which would require it to halt aid.
The State Department said Burns would meet “civil society groups” as well as government officials. But the Islamist Nour Party and the Tamarud anti-Mursi protest movement both said they had turned down invitations to meet him.
“First, they need to acknowledge the new system,” Tamarud founder Mahmoud Badr said of the Americans. “Secondly, they must apologise for their support for the Muslim Brotherhood’s party and terrorism. Then we can think about it,” he told Reuters.
In a further slight, Badr posted a copy of his invitation, including the U.S. embassy’s telephone number, on the Internet.
Nour, sometime allies of Mursi’s Brotherhood who have accepted the army takeover, said they had rejected meeting Burns because of “unjustified” U.S. meddling in Egypt’s affairs.
The Brotherhood said it had no meeting planned with Burns, although it did not make clear if it was invited.
“America are the ones who carried out the military coup,” Farid Ismail, a senior official in the Brotherhood’s political arm, told Reuters. “We do not kneel for anyone, and we do not respond to pressure from anyone.”
Burns did meet Adli Mansour, a judge installed as interim president by the army, and Hazem el-Beblawi, a liberal economist named interim prime minister. Beblawi is setting up a temporary cabinet staffed mainly by technocrats to lead the country under a “road map” foreseeing elections in about six months.
As pro-Mursi demonstrators gathered on Monday, rows of armoured vehicles were in place near the square. Barbed wire was blocking the street leading from the site to the Republican Guard barracks, scene of the violence a week ago when uniformed snipers were filmed firing from the rooftops into crowds.
Army helicopters had flown above overnight, dropping fliers exhorting the crowd to renounce violence and end their sit-in.
Abdel Khalid Abu Zeinia, a 50-year-old accountant camped at the square for 11 days in support of Mursi, said of Burns’s visit: “America works against the Egyptian people’s interests. America’s only concern is its interests, and Israel’s. America offers only words, not practical support to democracy.”
If Burns drove through downtown a few miles away, he might have seen a giant banner with a portrait of U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson and the message “Go home, witch!”. It was hung by Mursi’s foes, as angry with America as his supporters.
Mursi is being held incommunicado at an undisclosed location. He has not been charged with a crime but the authorities say they are investigating him over complaints of inciting violence, spying and wrecking the economy. Scores of Mursi supporters were rounded up after violence last week.
Many of the top Brotherhood figures have been charged with inciting violence but are still at large, having not been arrested. The public prosecutors’ office announced new charges against seven Brotherhood and Islamist leaders on Monday.
Beblawi has been naming ministers for his interim cabinet, including a former ambassador to the United States as foreign minister, a sign of the importance Cairo places in its relationship with its superpower sponsor.
U.S.-educated economist Ahmed Galal, as finance minister, has the task of rescuing an economy and state finances wrecked by two and a half years of turmoil.
That task became easier, at least in the short term, after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait – rich Gulf Arab states happy at the downfall of the Brotherhood – promised a total of $12 billion in cash, loans and fuel.
The new planning minister, Ashraf al-Arabi said the Arab money would be enough to sustain Egypt through its transition period and it did not need to restart talks with the International Monetary Fund.
Egypt had sought $4.8 billion in IMF aid last year, but months of talks ran aground with the government unable to agree cuts in unaffordable subsidies for food and fuel. Arabi’s comments could worry investors who want the IMF to prod reform.
“I think it’s inappropriate to be making such a strong statement, given how new he is to the position,” said Angus Blair, president of economic think tank Signet Institute.
“I think it would encourage all investors if the IMF funding and its additional contingent aid would be viewed as part of the overall financial equation for Egypt.”
Beblawi put a police general in charge of the supply ministry which manages the distribution network for subsidised goods. A musician was named culture minister – highly symbolic because her sacking as head of Cairo Opera two months ago by Mursi’s government had prompted artists and intellectuals to mount a weeks-long sit-in at the then Islamist-run ministry.
A lack of clarity over the U.S. position has fuelled anti-Americanism on both sides. U.S. ambassador Patterson angered Mursi’s enemies in the weeks before he was ousted by emphasising his electoral legitimacy and discouraging protests against him.
Last week, the State Department further muddied the waters by saying Mursi’s rule was undemocratic, a comment interpreted in Cairo as implying his removal was legitimate. Washington has also called for him to be freed and political detentions halted.
The political turmoil and unrest in major cities has also fuelled violence in Egypt’s lawless North Sinai province bordering Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip.
Attacks in the area have killed 13 people, mainly police, since July 3. In the latest, suspected Islamist militants fired grenades at a bus carrying workers from a factory in the Sinai city of El Arish, killing three and wounding 17.