By Tom Finn and Angus MacSwan
Senior U.S. and European envoys met the foreign minister of Egypt’s army-installed government on Saturday in a push to resolve the political crisis brought on by the overthrow of President Mohamed Mursi and to head off more bloodshed.
At the same time, the new government promised Mursi’s supporters a safe exit from their protest camps and urged them to rejoin the political process.
The international mediation effort stepped up pace a month to the day that the Islamist Mursi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, was ousted in the face of huge street demonstrations.
Since then, thousands of supporters of his Muslim Brotherhood have gathered in two camps in Cairo to demand his reinstatement, providing a challenge to the interim government as it tries to move forward with its own transition plan.
Almost 300 people have been killed in political violence in the past month, including 80 protesters shot by security forces in clashes on July 27. Mursi is in custody at a secret location.
Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy held talks with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson and European Union special envoy Bernardino Leon for almost an hour on Saturday morning.
An Egyptian Foreign Ministry statement said Fahmy reiterated the interim government’s commitment to a transition “road map” leading to new elections. It also wanted to achieve national reconciliation, including all political forces “as long as they refrain from all forms of violence and incitement to it”.
It stressed that although foreign envoys were welcome, any decisions were the perogative of the Egyptian government.
The envoys, it said, spoke of the need to end violence, reconcile the country and relaunch an inclusive political process.
Fahmy told reporters after the meeting that there had been some contact with the Brotherhood.
“I wouldn’t use the word negotiation. There have been contacts between different figures. There is no desire to use force if there is any other avenue that has any potential for success,” he said.
Those avenues had not yet been exhausted, he said, “but I have not seen any real return or any concrete progress frankly”.
Interior Ministry spokesman, General Hany Abdel Latif, meanwhile appeared on television and promised Mursi supporters a safe exit from their protest camps. He said they were being manipulated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders.
“Your continued sit-ins have no legal or political use. You have a safe exit, you will be politically integrated,” said Abdel Latif, wearing a white dress uniform.
The military had earlier threatened to remove them by force. But on Friday, following appeals form religious leaders as well as foreign governments to avoid a bloodbath, the interim government said it would blockade the camps but not storm them.
“If you think you’re upholding the Muslim Brotherhood, your safe exit from the squares will allow the group to return to its role within the democratic political process,” Latif said.
But in less conciliatory comments, Abdel Latif also said many people wanted to leave but they faced threats from the protest leaders. Anyone involved in crimes, including torture, killing and kidnapping, would face prosecution, he said.
“You are brainwashed, subject to psychological manipulation. You are being used as a political bargaining chip. he said, directing his comments to the demonstrators.
The crisis in the Arab world’s most populous country had posed a quandary for the United States and other Western governments, which had advocated democracy following the overthrow of strongman Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 but grew increasingly uncomfortable with Mursi’s Islamist leanings.
Many Egyptians shared that concern and frustration grew over Mursi’s failure to get to grips with social and economic problems.
The new government gained the United States’ seal of approval on Thursday when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the army had been “restoring democracy” when it toppled Mursi.
Under Mubarak, Egypt was a bulwark of U.S. policy in the Middle East, not least because of its peace agreement with Israel. Mursi’s overthrow had jeopardised the $1.3 billion annual military aid Egypt receives fom Washington.
Analysts say civilian members of the new government are trying to promote a political solution to the crisis despite resistance from security services that want to crack down on the Brotherhood, encouraged by an outpouring of public anger at the movement.
The government has drawn up a transition plan envisaging parliamentary elections that will start in about six months. But the Brotherhood, decrying what it sees as a coup against a democratically elected leader, says it wants nothing to do with it.
The Brotherhood protests are threatening to rob the government of a semblance of normality it needs to revive an economy which is in deep crisis.
The authorities have also rounded up many Brotherhood leaders accused of inciting violence, feeding international concern of a plan to uproot a group that was suppressed for decades until Mubarak’s overthrow.