CAIRO — Egypt’s Interior Ministry warned supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi on Thursday to clear encampments where they have been protesting for the past month, on a day when Secretary of State John F. Kerry said that the military intervention that forced out the country’s first democratically elected president was about “restoring democracy.”
The Interior Ministry’s call to vacate the two Cairo sit-in sites was widely seen as a precursor to sending in security forces to crush the protests and raised the prospect of renewed violence after a month in which security forces killed at least 140 Morsi supporters near Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque. With thousands of people still clustered in that area, any attempt to disperse protesters would likely be bloody.
The government’s warning was immediately rejected, however, by an alliance of Morsi supporters, who called for protests Friday “in all Egyptian streets and squares, in all provinces, cities and villages.”
The sit-ins “represent a threat to Egyptian national security and are unacceptably terrorizing to citizens,” Interior Ministry spokesman Hani Abdel Latif said in a statement broadcast on state television Thursday. The ministry urged protesters “to go back to reason, put the interests of the country up front, obey the public interest, and quickly leave the squares and evacuate them to ensure the safety of all.”
The ministry offered protesters “safe exit and complete protection” if they chose to leave the encampments, which have turned into entrenched tent cities whose residents include many women and children. Government officials have said that they plan to clear the sites in stages, first offering a warning, then using tear gas, then following up with greater force.
Thursday’s warning was followed by a military helicopter flyover of the Rabaa al-Adawiya encampment.
Also Thursday, after a month in which U.S. officials have gone to great lengths to avoid calling the military intervention that toppled Morsi a coup — a move that would halt the annual dispatch of $1.5 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt — Kerry offered the most extensive comments yet signaling that the administration is comfortable with Morsi’s ouster.
“The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people, all of whom were afraid of a descent into chaos, into violence,” Kerry said in an interview with Pakistan’s Geo TV during a two-day visit to Islamabad. “And the military did not take over, to the best of our judgment, so far — so far — to run the country. There’s a civilian government. In effect, they were restoring democracy.”
He added that the United States is “concerned” about violence, and he urged a peaceful resolution to the situation, although none appeared evident by late Thursday. Neither side has shown any indication of giving ground, with Morsi still being held in an undisclosed location and his supporters insisting that only he could lead any negotiations to resolve the conflict.
Kerry’s comments drew quick condemnation from a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, Gehad el-Haddad, who called them “absurd” and said that Morsi supporters had no intention of disbanding their encampments.
“This is a population that has lost their fear element,” Haddad said. He added that a range of international delegations, from that of E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to that of German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, both of whom visited Cairo in recent days, had pushed Morsi supporters to pack up and go home.
“The political message was, in effect, consistent,” Haddad said. “The military has the guns, and you don’t. They all appeared to carry the same message, that we’re supposed to yield to the power of the coup and not fight it.”
Amer Shakhatreh contributed to this report.