Egypt on shaky ground as Ramadan starts

SINAI - For the first time since before the June 30 protests began in Egypt, Cairo's Tahrir Square - where Morsi's opponents were centered - was largely without crowds.

It was unclear whether the Islamic holy month of Ramadaan, which started on Wednesday, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, would significantly calm the street. 

The fast cuts down on activity during the day, but the demonstrations have largely been nocturnal affairs. The Islamist camp would likely use it to rally its base.

Interim president Adly Mansour called for a reconciliation process called "One People" to begin in Ramadan, traditionally a period for Muslims to promote unity. 

He called for parties and movements to hold meetings, but there was no sign the Brotherhood and its allies would attend, much like Morsi's opponents rejected his calls for dialogue, which were dismissed as empty gestures.

With violence on the rise in Egypt's capital as well as neighbouring regions, attacks targeting military and security personnel in the desert peninsula have increased since the army ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi last week. 

Egypt's first democratically elected president was forced from office after protests by millions of Egyptians who demanded his resignation.

Following Monday's bloodshed, the military accused armed Islamists of starting the violence by attacking the headquarters of the Republican Guard. 

Morsi supporters say no such attack took place and that troops opened fire on their nearby sit-in after dawn prayers. Along with 51 protesters, an army officer and two policemen were killed.

An Egyptian security official said 650 people were arrested for allegedly trying to storm the headquarters. 

The official said there were Syrian and Palestinian nationals among those arrested. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the press.

 

Protest funding

Amid the violence, Egypt's new leaders have reportedly won US$8 billion in promises of aid from wealthy Gulf Arab allies in moves aimed at stabilising a political transition less than a week after the army deposed the country's Islamist president, Associated Press reported.

The interim president named a new prime minister and Egyptian armed forces warned political factions that "maneuvering" must not hold up the military's ambitious fast-track timetable for new elections next year.

The sharp message underlined how strongly the military was shepherding the process, even as liberal reform movements that backed its removal of Mohammed Morsi complained that now they are not being consulted in decision-making.

The Muslim Brotherhood denounced the transition plan, vowing to continue its street protests until the ousted Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, is returned to power.

Tuesday's appointment of economist Hazem el-Beblawi as prime minister, along with the setting of the accelerated timetable, underlined the army's determination to push ahead in the face of Islamist opposition and outrage over the killing of more than 50 Morsi supporters on Monday.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates provided a welcome boost for the new leadership.

The two countries, both opponents of Morsi's Brotherhood, celebrated his ouster by showering the cash-strapped Egyptian government with promises of $8 billion in grants, loans and badly needed gas and oil.

In doing so, they effectively stepped in for Morsi's Gulf patron, Qatar, a close ally of the Brotherhood that gave his government several billion in aid.

During Morsi's year in office, he and his officials toured multiple countries seeking cash to prop up rapidly draining foreign currency reserves and plug mounting deficits - at times getting a cold shoulder.

The developments underlined the pressures on the new leaders even with the country still in turmoil after what Morsi's supporters have called a coup against democracy.

Qatar-based Al-Jazeera reported that the US has been quietly funding senior Egyptian opposition figures who called for toppling of the country's now-deposed president Mohamed Morsi.

The report said that "The State Department's programme, dubbed by US officials as a 'democracy assistance' initiative, is part of a wider Obama administration effort to try to stop the retreat of pro-Washington secularists, and to win back influence in Arab Spring countries that saw the rise of Islamists, who largely oppose US interests in the Middle East."

In the meantime, the military faces calls, from the US and Western allies in particular, to show that civilians are in charge and Egypt is on a path toward a democratically-based leadership.

The nascent government will soon face demands that it tackle economic woes that mounted under Morsi, including fuel shortages, electricity cutoffs and inflation.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Washington is "cautiously encouraged" by the announcement of a plan to return to democratically elected government.

Still, several groups in the loose coalition participating in the political process were angered over the transition plan issued on Monday by interim President Adly Mansour.

His declaration set out a seven-month timetable for elections but also a truncated, temporary constitution laying out the division of powers in the meantime.

The top liberal political grouping, the National Salvation Front, rejected the plan late on Tuesday.

It said it was not consulted - "in violation of previous promises" - and that the declaration "lacks significant clauses while others need change or removal." It did not elaborate but said it had presented Mansour with changes it seeks.

The secular, revolutionary youth movement Tamarod, which organised last week's massive protests against Morsi, also criticised the plan, in part because it gives too much power to Mansour, including the power to issue laws.

A post-Morsi plan put forward by Tamarod called for a largely ceremonial interim president with most power in the hands of the prime minister.

Egypt remains deeply polarised with heightened fears of violence, especially after Monday's shootings. 

 

Top 8 issues facing Egypt 

Egypt is faced with eight grave issues, growing in intensity with the current situation, the combined editorial staffs of BuzzFeed and CNN reported on Wednesday.

- A soaring unemployment rate

- A crime rate that has trippled since 2010

- Fear of sexual violence against women

- Increased rolling blackouts

- Fuel shortages and traffic jams hindering communication

- Rising cost of food

- The ousted Muslim Brotherhood remaining defiant

- Morsi calling his overthrow a "military coup" thereby questioning the military's support of protestors.

 

New Cabinet due

The interim president's spokesman, Ahmed el-Musalamani, said posts in the new Cabinet would be offered to the Islamist camp - including to the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafi Al-Nour Party.

He spoke to Egypt's privately owned CBC TV channel in remarks also carried by the state news agency. El-Beblawi is to start forming a Cabinet on Wednesday.

The statement by armed forces chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi against political maneuvering underlined how the military - while it says it is staying out of politics - remains a powerful presence in a transition ostensibly being led by Mansour and a collection of political factions.

"The future of the nation is too important and sacred for maneuvers or hindrance, whatever the justifications," el-Sissi said in the statement, read on state TV.

"The people and, behind it, the armed forces don't want anyone to stray from the right path or deviate from the boundaries of safety and security, driven by selfishness or ... zealousness."

A spokesman for Mansour announced the appointment of el-Beblawi as prime minister and of pro-democracy leader Mohamed ElBaradei, a leader of the National Salvation Front, as vice president.

The naming of a prime minister was held up for days because the sole Islamist faction in the coalition, the ultraconservative Al-Nour Party, blocked candidates from secular, liberal and leftist groups. Those factions have been determined to have one of their own in the post.

Last week, Al-Nour blocked ElBaradei from becoming prime minister, then objected to one of his close allies put forward as a compromise.

The moves infuriated the secular and liberal factions. ElBaradei, the former head of the UN nuclear watchdog agency and a Nobel Peace laureate, is considered one of the strongest pro-reform figures, but many Islamists vehemently oppose him as too secular.

El-Beblawi is from the liberal-secular camp - albeit a less-controversial, well-known or prominent figure than ElBaradei.

El-Sissi's statement appeared to be a veiled warning to Al-Nour. But it suggests the military is ready to apply pressure on politicians when multiple disputes are almost certain to emerge.

He called for dialogue between the new leadership and their Islamist opponents. "Everyone in Egypt must sit together on the table for dialogue to solve current political differences, stop violence and bloodshed in the street," he repotedly told the AP.

Under the new timetable, two appointed panels would draw up and approve amendments to the constitution, which would be put to a referendum within 4½ months.

Elections for a new parliament would be held within two months of that and once the parliament convened, it would have a week to set a date for presidential elections.

 

-Additional reporting Al Jazeera and CNN

 

- Additional reporting Sapa

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