Morsi Supporters Stage Sit-Ins In Cairo As Tensions Rise

Tensions are growing among the thousands of pro-Morsi supporters camped out around a mosque in eastern Cairo. The government has ordered the protesters to disperse, sparking fears of fresh bloodshed.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

In Egypt, tensions are building between the interim government and supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

CORNISH: Thousands of Morsi supporters have joined sit-ins, like this one, in the Cairo area. And the government has ordered them to disperse, calling them a threat to national security. Today, officials told protesters if they leave now, they won't be pursued by police. But they refused.

We go to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who met with the protesters today. And, Soraya, to start, describe what these sit-ins are like.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Well, I went to the one at Rabba Al-Adaweya Square, which is in Nasr City, which is on the eastern edge of Cairo. And basically you have all these protesters who've ripped up the pavements and used the paving stones to create makeshift barricades. And there's a group of protesters who've armed themselves, wearing helmets and carrying sticks ready to beat anyone who they feel is threatening the movement.

Now, once you get inside it's sort of like a market atmosphere with a lot of people sleeping during the day, because it is Ramadan, the fasting month of Islam. And then they chant and they carry on. It's a very strange sort of carnival-like atmosphere. And there aren't any tanks or security forces that I could see on the streets around Rabba Al-Adaweya Square. But the military is keeping a close watch from helicopters overhead, like this one that flew over while I was there.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)

NELSON: Many of the protesters shouted at the helicopter to leave and held up the soles of their shoes in its direction, which is a major sign of disrespect in this part of the world.

CORNISH: So why is the government so determined to remove the protestors?

NELSON: Well, what they're saying publicly is that these particular protesters are disrupting daily Egyptian life. Roads are cut off, the people can't go to work; people can't exist in their environments, if you will, in their homes. They end up having to show their IDs every time they come or leave the area to Muslim Brotherhood types. And they're feeling very impinged upon.

But Ashraf al-Sharif, who is an American University in Cairo professor, he's one of the many Nasr City residents tired of snarled traffic brought about by the sit-in. He's saying the interim government is lying about its reason.

ASHRAF AL-SHARIF: Over the last two years and a half, I mean, we had protests and sit-ins in different places all over Cairo and Giza. And each one of them caused some troubles in the life of the people living there in the neighborhoods. But every time, the government dealt with the sit-in or the protest according to the political calculus, not according to this notion of the welfare or the well-being of the people. So it's just a pretext.

NELSON: There's little doubt that the protests and the violence are embarrassing to the military-backed interim government, which would prefer that the forcible removal of Morsi be forgotten by Egyptians and the country's Western allies.

CORNISH: It sounds like the Interior Ministry has effectively given the protestors a deadline, or at least the time when they have to leave or else.

NELSON: Well, they keep pushing them but they're not really saying exactly when they expect this to happen. What the security officials have also said is that they plan to disperse the sit-ins gradually. First, with warnings and then, if necessary, with tear gas and other, quote, "self-defense measures." And then the cabinet says anything that will be done will be within the framework of the law. But it's important to remember that that law has been changed in the past week, to give security forces more latitude in dealing forcibly with the protesters.

CORNISH: Now, foreign envoys in recent days have urged both sides in this political crisis to come to a negotiated settlement. But, I mean, are there any signals that this is something that the Muslim Brotherhood or the interim government is willing to do?

NELSON: Well, certainly not at this time. The interim government says it is willing to talk to the Brotherhood if they stop the violence. But the Brotherhood says it doesn't recognize the military-backed interim government as legitimate, and that they will continue to protest until Morsi is restored to power.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, thank you so much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Audie.

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