The US State Department urged Egypt’s interim government on Wednesday to respect the right of peaceful assembly, after Cairo’s new leaders said vigils by supporters of deposed President Mohamed Mursi threatened national security and were no longer acceptable.
While rejecting proposals to withdraw financial support for the Egyptian interim government, Washington said it was against iron-fist rule.
“We have continued to urge the interim government, officials and security forces, to respect the right of peaceful assembly,” deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told a news briefing. “That obviously includes sit-ins.”
The United States had made this point publicly and privately to Egypt’s leaders “and we will continue to do so,” Harf said.
Earlier, an interim cabinet installed by the Egyptian military denounced “terrorist acts” and traffic disruption stemming from the street protests and said it had decided to “put an end to them.”
This set up a potentially bloody showdown with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has vowed to keep up its street vigils until Mursi is reinstated.
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said the order to break up the sit-ins by Mursi supporters 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 told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Ahmed Sobaie, spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice party, derided the Cabinet decision as “paving the way for another massacre.”
“The police state is getting ready to commit more massacres against the innocent, unarmed civilians holding sit-ins for the sake of legitimacy,” he said.
Organizers are portraying the sit-ins outside the Rabaah Al-Adawiya mosque in eastern Cairo and a smaller one across the city near Cairo University’s main campus as evidence of an enduring support base for Mursi’s once-dominant Muslim Brotherhood.
The fundamentalist group has long been one of the most powerful political forces in Egypt, even during its decades in the opposition to autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak, himself ousted in a popular uprising in 2011.
But after a series of election wins, including Mursi’s presidential victory last year, the group has fallen from popular favor. Mursi was ousted in a July 3 military coup after millions took to the streets to call for him to step down because he granted too much influence to the Brotherhood and failed to implement much-needed social and economic reforms.
The Brotherhood has so far refused to cooperate with the country’s interim leaders, whom it calls “traitors,” or participate in a military-backed fast-track transition plan to return to a democratically elected government by early next year. Instead it tries to keep thousands of supporters camped out in tents decorated with photos of Mursi, occupying a cross-shaped intersection facing the mosque.
Authorities have already cracked down on the organization, arresting Mursi and other senior leaders. On Wednesday, Egyptian prosecutors referred three top leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood to trial for allegedly inciting the killing of at least eight protesters last month outside the group’s Cairo headquarters.
Clashes outside the camps between security forces and protesters have left more than 130 people dead altogether.
At least six makeshift gates have been erected as the sole entry points to the Rabaah encampment, with dozens of protesters standing guard, checking IDs, searching bags and patting down visitors.
On Wednesday, the US Senate rejected a proposal to take money meant for aid to Egypt and instead spend it on building bridges at home, after a potential Republican presidential candidate challenged the Obama administration’s refusal to label the ouster of Egypt’s president a military coup.
Sen. Rand Paul’s amendment to next year’s transportation bill would have halted the $1.5 billion in assistance the US gives Egypt each year. Most of it is military assistance.
Paul cited the US law that bans most forms of support for countries that suffer a military “coup.” The administration has said it won’t make that determination about the Egyptian army’s July 3 ouster of the Islamist President Muhammad Mursi.
“Our nation’s bridges are crumbling,” said Paul, a strict conservative who has previously failed in attempts to cut US support programs for Egypt, Libya and Pakistan. “I propose that we take the billion dollars that is now being illegally given to Egypt and spend it at home.”
The Senate voted 86-13 against the measure. It was the first to be proposed in either chamber of Congress since the army arrested Mursi, suspended the constitution and cracked down on his Muslim Brotherhood. A series of deadly protests have taken place since then in what was once Washington’s strongest ally in the Muslim world.
The vote exposed a division among Republicans, with libertarians like Paul against others such as Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who plan to visit Egypt next week at President Barack Obama’s request to press for new elections.
“It’s important that we send a message to Egypt that we’re not abandoning them,” McCain said. Right now, Egypt is “descending into chaos. It’s going to be a threat to the United States.”
Graham told reporters on Tuesday that holding the vote at all could send the wrong signal to Egypt. He has argued that cutting off the aid could threaten Israel’s security and US counterterrorism efforts.
The Obama administration told lawmakers last week it won’t declare Egypt’s government overthrow a coup, guided by similar concerns about suspending programs that secure Israel’s borders and fight weapons smuggling into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
It also fears losing its greatest source of leverage with Egypt’s military leadership.