Chilly Cairo welcome for US envoy
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CAIRO - The first senior US official to visit Egypt since the army toppled its elected president was snubbed by both Islamists and their opponents on Monday, while supporters of the ousted leader demonstrated in the streets.
After meeting the interim head of state and the prime minister, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns insisted he was not in town “to lecture anyone”. But many on either side of Egypt's divide suspect Washington of plotting against them.
A huge crowd of supporters of Islamist Mohamed Morsi poured into a square near a mosque in northeast Cairo carrying a giant Egyptian flag, banners and portraits of the detained leader.
Accusing the United States of backing a military coup, thousands of Morsi's partisans have kept a vigil there since the days before the army toppled him on July 3, swelling to tens of thousands for mass protests every few days.
The army warned them on Monday that it would respond with “the utmost severity and firmness and force” if they approach military bases. At least 92 people were killed in the days after Morsi was toppled, more than half of them shot by troops outside a barracks near the mosque a week ago.
Protests since then have been tense but mostly peaceful.
Morsi's foes also called for a demonstration on Monday, evening. Their rallies have been comparatively small since they achieved their objective of bringing him down.
Crisis in the Arab world's most populous state, which has a peace treaty with Israel and controls the strategic Suez Canal, has alarmed allies in the region and the West.
Burns arrived in a divided capital where both sides are furious at the United States, which supports Egypt with $1.5 billion a year in mostly military aid.
“Only Egyptians can determine their future. I did not come with American solutions. Nor did I come to lecture anyone,” Burns told a brief news conference. “We will not try to impose our model on Egypt.”
Washington, never comfortable with the rise of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, has so far refused to say whether it views Morsi's removal as a coup, which would require it to halt aid.
The State Department said Burns would meet “civil society groups” as well as government officials. But the Islamist Nour Party and the Tamarud anti-Morsi protest movement both said they had turned down invitations to meet him.
“First, they need to acknowledge the new system,” Tamarud founder Mahmoud Badr said of the Americans. “Secondly, they must apologise for their support for the Muslim Brotherhood's party and terrorism. Then we can think about it,” he told Reuters.
In a further slight, Badr posted a copy of his invitation, including the US embassy's telephone number, on the Internet.
Nour, sometime allies of Morsi's Brotherhood who have accepted the army takeover, said they had rejected meeting Burns because of “unjustified” US meddling in Egypt's affairs.
The Brotherhood said it had no meeting planned with Burns, although it did not make clear if it was invited.
“America are the ones who carried out the military coup,” Farid Ismail, a senior official in the Brotherhood's political arm, told Reuters. “We do not kneel for anyone, and we do not respond to pressure from anyone.”
Burns did meet Adli Mansour, a judge installed as interim president by the army, and Hazem el-Beblawi, a liberal economist named interim prime minister. Beblawi is setting up a temporary cabinet staffed mainly by technocrats to lead the country under a “road map” foreseeing elections in about six months.
As pro-Morsi demonstrators gathered on Monday, rows of armoured vehicles were in place near the square. Barbed wire was blocking the street leading from the site to the Republican Guard barracks, scene of the violence a week ago when uniformed snipers were filmed firing from the rooftops into crowds.
Army helicopters had flown above overnight, dropping fliers exhorting the crowd to renounce violence and end their sit-in.
Abdel Khalid Abu Zeinia, a 50-year-old accountant camped at the square for 11 days in support of Morsi, said of Burns's visit: “America works against the Egyptian people's interests. America's only concern is its interests, and Israel's. America offers only words, not practical support to democracy.”
If Burns drove through downtown a few miles away, he might have seen a giant banner with a portrait of US ambassador Anne Patterson and the message “Go home, witch!”. It was hung by Morsi's foes, as angry with America as his supporters.
Morsi is being held incommunicado at an undisclosed location. He has not been charged with a crime but the authorities say they are investigating him over complaints of inciting violence, spying and wrecking the economy. Scores of Morsi supporters were rounded up after violence last week.
Most of the top Brotherhood figures have been charged with inciting violence but are still at large, having not been arrested. The public prosecutors' office announced new charges against seven Brotherhood and Islamist leaders on Monday.
Beblawi has been naming ministers for his interim cabinet, including a former ambassador to the United States as foreign minister, a sign of the importance Cairo places in its relationship with its superpower sponsor.
US-educated economist Ahmed Galal, as finance minister, has the task of rescuing an economy and state finances wrecked by two and a half years of turmoil.
That task became easier, at least in the short term, after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait - rich Gulf Arab states happy at the downfall of the Brotherhood - promised a total of $12 billion in cash, loans and fuel.
The new planning minister, Ashraf al-Arabi, an economist who also served in that role for a time under Morsi, said the Arab money would be enough to sustain Egypt through its transition period and it was “not appropriate” for Egypt to restart talks with the International Monetary Fund.
Egypt had sought $4.8 billion in IMF aid last year, but months of talks ran aground with the government unable to agree steep cuts in unaffordable food and fuel subsidies. Arabi's comments could worry investors who want IMF talks as a spur to prod Egypt to make economic reforms.
“It think it's inappropriate to be making such a strong statement, given how new he is to the position,” Angus Blair, president of Signet Institute, an economic think-tank for the Middle East and North Africa, said of Arabi's remarks.
“I think it would encourage all investors if the IMF funding and its additional contingent aid would be viewed as part of the overall financial equation for Egypt. There's so much to be done to boost economic growth.”
Beblawi put a police general in charge of the supply ministry which manages the distribution network for subsidised goods. A musician was named culture minister - highly symbolic because her sacking as head of Cairo Opera two months ago by Morsi's government had prompted artists and intellectuals to mount a weeks-long sit-in at the then Islamist-run ministry.
A lack of clarity over the US position has fuelled anti-Americanism on both sides. US ambassador Patterson angered Morsi's enemies in the weeks before he was ousted by emphasising his electoral legitimacy and discouraging protests against him.
Last week, the State Department further muddied the waters by saying Morsi's rule was undemocratic, a comment interpreted in Cairo as implying his removal was legitimate. Washington has also called for him to be freed and political detentions halted.
“The goal of his trip is to engage with and hear directly from interim Egyptian officials and civil society as part of our ongoing efforts to see Egypt transition to an inclusive, pluralistic, democratically elected civilian government,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said ahead of Burns's trip.
The political turmoil and unrest in major cities has also fuelled violence in Egypt's lawless North Sinai province bordering Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip, where Islamist militants have called for people to rise up against the army.
A series of attacks in the area have claimed at least 13 lives, mainly security personnel, since July 3. In the latest assault, suspected militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at a bus carrying workers from a cement factory in the Sinai city of El Arish, killing three and wounding 17. - Reuters