Government Order Sparks Fears Of More Violence In Egypt

Egypt's military-backed interim government has ordered security forces to break up protest camps set up in Cairo by supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi. The camps have already been the scene of bloody clashes, and the government order has raised fears of further violence.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's turn, now, to Egypt. There are fears of fresh violence in Egypt this morning. The interim government there has ordered that protesters backing former President Mohammed Morsi be dispersed. The government says some of the gatherings of Morsi supporters are a threat to national security. Now, this impending crackdown comes four weeks after Morsi, Egypt's elected Islamist leader, was forcibly removed from power. The former president is in detention in a secret location, but he has been able to meet with a European Union official and with a delegation from the African Union.

We turn to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson with the latest in Cairo. Soraya, good morning.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So the government says - has ordered that these protesters, who support Mohammed Morsi be removed. When do we think this might happen?

NELSON: That's the burning question that all of us have here. It's clear that the Interior Ministry now has the green light to use all measures necessary. But security officials say that they want to end the protest gradually, first with warnings and then, if necessary, escalating to teargas and other, quote, "self-defense measures."

The cabinet says anything that will be done will be done within the framework of the law. But it's important to remember that that law was changed in the past week, to give security forces more latitude in dealing with what they describe as threats to national security and terrorism.

GREENE: So, former President Morsi, supporters of him, supporters of his party - the Muslim Brotherhood - have been out there on the streets. And meanwhile, Egyptian officials really have been using more and more inflammatory language to describe them, including referring to these gatherings as terrorism-originating spots? Why that language?

NELSON: There are several reasons. One of them is that the government blames the Brotherhood for the clashes with anti-Morsi protesters and security forces, which have led of course to 300 deaths in the month since the president was ousted. Government officials also say that the protesters at the two sit-ins are armed. They accused them of detaining and torturing people at those sit-ins. And, of course, the clashes are also disrupting traffic and commerce and daily life in Cairo.

But what they don't talk about as much is that these sit-ins are quite embarrassing to them, both domestically and abroad. And we're talking about the interim government and the armed forces receiving billions of dollars in aid, and this sort of has the appearance anyway - in people's minds - of a military coup and protesters being violently oppressed.

GREENE: So the government, confident that they did the right thing, or at least saying so, but worried about the perception that all this has in the outside world.

NELSON: Absolutely.

GREENE: What is the Muslim Brotherhood's reaction, Soraya, to having their gatherings called something like terrorism-originating spots?

NELSON: Well, they fling those terms back. The spokesman accused the interim government security forces have actually being the terrorist, and say that their supporters will continue their sit-ins and protests. And they also point to what they say is a double standard, in terms of how security forces are dealing with pro-Morsi rallies; when you compare it to the anti-Morsi rallies at Tahrir Square and front of the presidential palace.

GREENE: Let's talk about Morsi. We don't know where he is. He's being detained. We do know he's been able to meet with a European Union envoy, Catherine Ashton, and then yesterday with an African Union delegation. What do we know about these meetings?

NELSON: Well, one of the key complaints that Egyptian allies have had, especially Western ones, is that the military is holding Morsi against his will, incommunicado at a secret location. And Ashton made it clear to reporters that she wasn't going to come to Egypt unless she got to see Morsi, which she did. And then the African Union, of course, suspended Egypt's participation in the union after the coup - so this is it was important for them, as well.

It's clear the military is trying to ease international pressure by allowing some access. But it's very unlikely that they'll continue it because he is being held in a secret location. And obviously the more people who go see him, the more of the chance that that location will be revealed

GREENE: These foreign envoys are trying to get both sides to come to some kind of negotiated settlement. Does either side seem interested in that right now?

NELSON: Absolutely not, they're still very far apart. The interim government says it is willing to talk to the Muslim Brotherhood if they stop the violence. They won't negotiate with Morsi, they say. But the Brotherhood says it doesn't recognize the military-backed interim government or the coup as legitimate.

And the Brotherhood intransigence was fueled yesterday, when its supreme guide as well as two other leaders, were referred to criminal court on charges that they killed protesters because the protesters allegedly had weapons. The leaders are denying these charges.

GREENE: Alright, the latest from NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Cairo. Soraya, thank you.

NELSON: You're welcome.

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