CAIRO — Egypt’s military-backed interim government on Wednesday ordered the country’s security forces to break up protest encampments in the capital where thousands of supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi have held running demonstrations over the past month.
The cabinet’s statement underscored the potential for renewed violence on Egypt’s streets less than a week after security forces killed more than 80 Morsi supporters in hours of clashes on the perimeter of one sit-in site.
The vow to disperse the protesters also highlighted the ineffectiveness of a visit Monday and Tuesday by Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, in an effort to facilitate dialogue and end Egypt’s political impasse. Ashton was the first foreign official to meet with Morsi, who has been held incommunicado since the military ousted him in a July 3 coup.
The cabinet signaled Wednesday that Interior Ministry forces had been ordered to use “all necessary measures” to break up two sprawling sit-in sites, one in the eastern Cairo district of Nasr City and the other in Cairo’s sister city of Giza. The cabinet did not specify a time frame.
“The continuation of the grave situation in Rabaa and Nahda squares and the acts of terrorism, intimidation and cutting off roads is no longer acceptable,” Information Minister Dorreya Sharaf said, reading from the cabinet statement in an appearance broadcast on national television.
The tent encampment outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo’s Nasr City has come to resemble a miniature city, complete with electrical wiring and portable stoves, and is populated by entire families, including children.
In addition to Ashton and other European officials, the Obama administration has also urged Egypt’s interim authorities and its military to avoid state-sanctioned violence and to make the transition to democracy as soon as possible.
At a news briefing Wednesday, U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said, “We’ve continued to urge the interim government officials and security forces to respect the right of peaceful assembly. That obviously includes sit-ins.”
Egyptian security forces have rounded up hundreds of Morsi supporters, including several top officials in Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and other prominent Islamists in the four weeks since the coup.
On Wednesday, a Cairo misdemeanor court sentenced Morsi’s last prime minister, Hesham Kandil, to 12 months in prison for failing to implement while in office a court order mandating the return of a privatized company to the state.
Prosecutors also referred the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, and two other top officials to a criminal court on charges of killing protesters in front of the group’s headquarters, where clashes erupted in June as Brotherhood opponents tried to storm the building.
Egyptian news media have ramped up popular sentiment against the Islamists in the weeks since the coup, accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of “terrorist” tactics and reporting on alleged conspiracies between the Brotherhood and the U.S. government to get Morsi back into power.
Also Wednesday, a delegation of African Union officials said that they, too, had been granted a late-night meeting with the deposed president, a day after Ashton met with him. But the visits by the two foreign delegations appeared to have had little impact on Egypt’s political turmoil.
Ashton met with Morsi late Monday. Neither she nor the African Union group disclosed where Morsi is being held or the substance of what was said, although both delegations said that Morsi appeared to be doing well. The African Union delegation met with him for an hour late Tuesday, a member said at a news conference Wednesday.
Ashton also met with the chief of Egypt’s armed forces, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, and a range of government figures, politicians and activists, including representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood.
On Tuesday, Ashton held a news conference with Egypt’s interim vice president, Mohamed ElBaradei, a liberal leader and key interlocutor for the military-backed interim government.
ElBaradei said 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 Peace Prize laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. ElBaradei has expressed muted criticism of Egyptian security forces, who have killed more than 130 Morsi supporters in two separate incidents since the coup.
Sharaf al-Hourani and Amer Shakhatreh contributed to this report.