By Maggie Fick and Yasmine Saleh
Islamist supporters of Egypt’s deposed president held a festive rally for the Eid al-Fitr holiday on Thursday to demand his restoration after the military-led authorities that removed him held off from a threat to break up protest sit-ins.
The rarely-seen wife of deposed leader Mohamed Mursi, Naglaa Mahmoud, made a surprise appearance on stage at the main demonstration in Cairo to appeal for her husband’s return as the crowds roared “Returning! Returning!”
Interim President Adly Mansour declared on Wednesday that international diplomatic efforts had failed to resolve the political crisis and the government warned activists to leave the protest camps, saying the decision to remove them was final.
U.S. and European Union envoys left Cairo after the breakdown of their attempts to broker a solution, which had also involved Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
However, a person involved in the mediation effort said the authorities and Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood might yet step back from confrontation and implement mutual confidence building steps that could lead to a negotiated settlement.
“It’s not over yet,” the diplomat said. “It could work but we don’t have any guarantees. Everything is very fragile.”
Government and military sources also said the talks were not terminated but had been frozen to assuage public anger over perceived foreign interference in Egypt’s affairs and among some at the authorities’ willingness to negotiate with the Brotherhood after months of demonising them.
A military source said the authorities were holding back from using force to clear the protest camps partly due to fear that liberal Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei would resign, removing a source of political legitimacy for army rule.
State-owned newspapers splashed giant red headlines such as “The last warning”, “Government to Brotherhood: diplomacy is finished”, and “Egypt rejects sermons from the American Satan”, sign of the contempt with which the public holds the United States, which provides Egypt with $1.5 billion in annual aid.
Mursi has been jailed at a secret location since the military removed him from power on July 3 and other senior Brotherhood figures have been rounded up.
Thousands of Mursi followers have maintained vigils at two Cairo locations for five weeks, despite government orders to disband and two mass shootings when security forces killed scores of them with live fire.
Interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi visited the Central Security Forces with the interior minister in an apparent effort to calm hardliners impatient for tougher action.
“He assured them that the government places security at the top of its priorities and that there is no stable society without security that is founded on the law, and that protects the sovereignty of the state and the lives of its citizens and their possessions,” a statement from Beblawi’s office said.
Thousands of demonstrators converged on the Brotherhood protest camp in northeastern Cairo in a festive atmosphere to attend prayers and a rally on the first day of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
“I came here because I want to make a small difference,” said Ghada Idriss, 35, who travelled from the rural province of Minya by car with her husband, two young sons, and two-month-old daughter Lougine.
“By sitting here peacefully, they will understand and know that we refuse the return of the system of Hosni (Mubarak),” he said of the former autocrat swept from office in a 2011 revolt.
The public appearance of Mursi’s wife after five weeks out of the limelight since her husband’s detention caused wild excitement outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque. She waved her hands above her head, flanked by senior Brotherhood leader Mohamed El-Beltagi.
“Of course it’s very difficult for me to speak. God willing he is returning, God willing, God willing,” she said in a strong voice, dressed in a cream-coloured waist-length veil over a long burgundy dress.
“Praise God, the Egyptian people proved that they are Islamist… God willing, Islamist,” she said.
Secular and leftist groups have also called for mass demonstrations and public prayers across Egypt to support what they see as a popular revolution that led to the overthrow of Mursi by the military after just a year in office.
In one apparent conciliatory gesture, prosecutors dropped the main charge against the head of the Brotherhood’s political wing, Saad El-Katatni, in a possible prelude to releasing him.
The Brotherhood allowed a human rights organisation and a European Parliament delegation to visit the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in, where anti-Mursi media have alleged that weapons had been stockpiled – a charge denied by the Islamists.
The person involved in the mediation effort said a sequence of statements and confidence building measures aimed at reducing tensions and reassuring public opinion might yet lead to direct or indirect negotiations between the two sides.
So far, the Brotherhood has refused to accept what it calls the illegal coup and has publicly demanded the return of the elected president. The new authorities have accused Islamist leaders of inciting violence, frozen the Brotherhood’s assets and vowed to put them on trial.
TRAIN HAS DEPARTED
“The train of the future has departed, and everyone must realise the moment and catch up with it, and whoever fails to realise this moment must take responsibility for their decision,” interim president Mansour said in an Eid broadcast.
Diplomats have said any settlement would have to involve a dignified exit for Mursi, Brotherhood acceptance of the new disposition, the release of political prisoners arrested since the takeover and a future political role for the Brotherhood.
The United States and the EU said on Wednesday they were very concerned that the Egyptian parties had not found a way to break what they called a dangerous stalemate.
“This remains a very fragile situation, which holds not only the risk of more bloodshed and polarisation in Egypt, but also impedes the economic recovery, which is so essential for Egypt’s successful transition,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement.
Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans, visiting Cairo when the talks collapsed, told Reuters the country’s new rulers appeared to see no merit in talking to the Brotherhood now, but they would have to do so eventually and the sooner the better.
While violence has subsided in Cairo since a July 27 incident in which security forces shot dead at least 80 Islamist protesters, daily clashes continue between Islamist militants and the army in the lawless Sinai Peninsula adjoining Israel.
The army said on Wednesday it had killed 60 militants in the province since Mursi was ousted on July 3. Medical officials have said the gunmen have killed about 40 people, mostly members of the security forces. The Brotherhood says it has no links to the Sinai militants.