CAIRO — European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Tuesday that she had met with deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, the first contact he has had with an independent official since he was taken into military custody almost a month ago.
By allowing the meeting, Egypt’s military signaled that it may be willing to work with Morsi toward a political solution to the country’s ongoing crisis, which has spawned repeated violence between security forces and the ousted president’s supporters. Ashton, a low-key British diplomat, said she was taken by military helicopter late Monday to meet with Morsi. She declined to go into detail about her two-hour conversation with him, but she said he had access to newspapers and television and was in good condition.
“He’s well, and we had a friendly and open and very frank discussion,” Ashton said at a brief news conference Tuesday. She told reporters that she did not know precisely where Morsi, who has been held incommunicado since his July 3 ouster, is being detained.
Last week, prosecutors announced that Morsi is under investigation over allegations of espionage and murder, accusations that his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood have dismissed as politically motivated. Criminal charges based on the allegations could carry the death penalty.
After her meeting with Morsi, Ashton met Tuesday with Egypt’s interim vice president, Mohamed ElBaradei, a liberal leader and key interlocutor for the military-backed interim government. He said at a joint appearance with Ashton that he thought Morsi had “failed” during his year in power but that his Muslim Brotherhood allies should be part of the new political “road map” going forward.
“We would very much like them to be part of the political process,” said ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who has been slow to criticize the security forces’ crackdown on pro-Morsi demonstrations.
Ashton’s two-day visit appeared to have at least temporarily calmed the tense capital after a weekend of violence left at least 80 pro-Morsi demonstrators and a police officer dead, according to the Health Ministry. Morsi’s supporters rallied in Cairo on Tuesday night and marched toward the military intelligence headquarters, although no violence had been reported by early Wednesday.
During her trip, Ashton met with a wide range of Egyptian political figures, including Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the commander of the armed forces; liberal activists and politicians who supported the coup; and a hard-line Islamist party that backed Morsi’s removal but has since wavered in its support for the military. She also met with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ashton said Monday that she hoped the meetings would facilitate conversations that might lead to a political solution. But she stressed that Egyptians, and particularly those in power, must ensure that the country moves forward along a democratic path.
“In all of my conversations, we have emphasized a few things,” Ashton said. “First of all, we are here to help. We are not here to impose. The people of Egypt will determine their own future.”
Although Ashton has sometimes struggled during her E.U. tenure to publicly articulate a unified message on behalf of the bloc’s 28 member nations, she is known as a charming envoy behind closed doors. She has previously been involved in tough international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
In Cairo on Tuesday, her reticence about the substance of her conversation with Morsi appeared at least partly intended to help jump-start discussions between the interim government and the ousted Brotherhood-backed leaders.
Officials from the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, from which Morsi hails, told Ashton that any political solution for Egypt must be based on “the return of the president,” the party said in a statement.
The statement said the demonstrations in support of Morsi would not stop until “constitutional legitimacy” was restored. His backers have used that phrase to refer to returning him to power, as well as to reinstating the country’s Islamist-dominated parliament and the constitution ratified under Morsi through a popular referendum.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke by telephone Tuesday with Sissi, a Hagel spokesman said, adding that the secretary urged “restraint” in dealing with protesters and called for “an inclusive reconciliation process.”
Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.