Egypt’s cabinet has ordered a police crackdown on protests by ousted president Mohamed Morsi’s loyalists, as European envoys headed for Cairo to try to ease tensions between the army-installed government and Islamists.
The order to the interior minister raised the prospect of a dangerous showdown just days after 82 people were killed at a pro-Morsi protest in Cairo.
It came as diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful way out of Egypt’s crisis gathered pace, with the EU and Germany sending envoys to urge a peaceful resolution to the standoff.
Adding to the tensions, judicial sources said prosecutors had referred the Muslim Brotherhood’s fugitive supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, to trial for allegedly inciting the killing of protesters.
The cabinet’s announcement came in a statement that said pro-Morsi protest camps at two Cairo squares were posing a “threat to national security.”
“The continuation of the dangerous situation in Rabaa al-Adawiya and Nahda squares, and consequent terrorism and road blockages, are no longer acceptable given the threat to national security,” it said.
“The government has decided to take all necessary measures to confront and end these dangers, and tasks the interior minster to do all that is necessary in this regard, in accordance with the constitution and law,” the statement said.
That was met with immediate defiance by the Islamists, who have been camped out for weeks calling for the reinstatement of Morsi, Egypt’s first Islamist president elected last year.
“Nothing will change,” said Gehad El-Haddad, a Brotherhood spokesman for the coalition protesting Morsi’s overthrow, dismissing the order as an “attempt to terrorise Egyptians.”
Reacting to the announcement, Washington urged Egypt to “respect the right of peaceful assemblies.”
In Rabaa al-Adawiya, the mood was calm after the announcement, with preparations for the Ramadan fast-breaking meal under way and no sign of an immediate increase in the security presence.
Thousands of people have been camped out in a protest tent city at the square.
The interior ministry had already warned that the demonstrations would be dispersed “soon,” but without saying when or how.
An interim cabinet minister said Wednesday’s statement did not “give room for interpretation.”
Confrontations between Morsi loyalists and security forces have turned increasingly deadly, with 82 people killed in clashes with police on Saturday morning.
And at least 51 people were killed in earlier violence between demonstrators and soldiers outside Cairo’s Republican Guard headquarters.
Brotherhood leaders, including supreme guide Badie, who is in hiding, are facing charges related to violence that preceded Morsi’s ouster.
Morsi himself has been detained on suspicion of involvement in prison breaks and the murder of policemen during the 2011 revolt that toppled president Hosni Mubarak.
The developments came as the international community stepped up efforts to push for a peaceful resolution to Egypt’s stand-off.
EU spokesman Michael Mann said on Wednesday the bloc’s Middle East envoy, Bernardino Leon, would be in Cairo later to “continue the contacts and mediation efforts.”
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle arrived to “promote the quick return to democratically endorsed conditions, and the resumption of an inclusive transformation process,” a spokesman said before he landed.