Egypt intensifies crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

If carried out, the recent death sentence of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi could spark widespread disturbances in Egypt. The court is expected to confirm the sentences of more than 120 Muslim Brotherhood leaders including senior figures of the Muslim Brotherhood, after an opinion by a religious leader. According to Egyptian law, the executions can go ahead even without religious sanction, but some say the government will not carry out the executions fearful of public anger.

While Morsi is the most famous, estimates range from 16,000 up to 40,000 for the number of Muslim Brotherhood supporters who are being held in jail. Two senior Brotherhood members, both former members of the Egyptian parliament, died in jail in the past week. Supporters said they did not receive adequate medical care, while the government insisted the men died despite receiving treatment.

“There is a systematic crackdown on the Brotherhood and it is becoming more evident because of the execution verdicts and the deaths of the two parliament members,” Maha Azzam, of the Carnegie Middle East Center, told The Media Line. “The aim is to hit really hard at the opposition and weaken the Muslim Brotherhood.”

She said that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s crackdown has also been aimed at other opposition groups in Egypt including leftists, but the government clearly sees the Muslim Brotherhood as its main rival, and is determined to crush it.

A recent op-ed in the pro-government newspaper El Watan by Mahmoud Kardousi calls for all members of the Muslim Brotherhood to be executed.

“I cannot hid my happiness and gloating in the execution of each person who belongs to the gang of the Brotherhood even if they were a million or ten million,” he writes. “Egypt will not get hurt if you cut one of her fingers before the whole body is poisoned.”

Azzam said that the government is encouraging these violent sentiments against Muslim Brotherhood members, but warns it could backfire.

“This could be very dangerous,” she said. “There is a breakdown of the rule of law and the judiciary is seen as politicized. If all democratic channels are blocked, there will be a new outbreak of violence.”

The Arab Spring came to Egypt with large mostly peaceful demonstrations to unseat long-time autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak. After Mubarak, who was recently exonerated of corruption charges, stepped down in 2011, Egypt’s first democratic elections brought Mohamed Morsi to power in 2012. By the following year, millions were demonstrating in the streets against Morsi, and in the summer of July, 2013, the military took over Egypt again.

Since then, Sisi has cracked down not only on the Muslim Brotherhood but on journalists as well. Most outlets critical of the government have been closed, and even those journalists still working practice self-censorship.

“We’ve seen journalists arrested in their homes with no solid evidence,” Nadine Haddad, an Amnesty campaigner for Egypt told The Media Line. “There is a trend against any journalists who are critical of the state narrative.”

Egypt is a young country with more than half of its population of 85 million under the age of 25. They are getting around the censorship of journalism by taking to social media. Studies show that the use of Twitter has increased tenfold over the past few years.

Egypt’s bruised Brotherhood fails to show street power


Mass protests called by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood mostly failed to materialize on Friday as the movement reels from a bloody army crackdown on followers of ousted President Mohamed Morsi.
 
Troops and police had taken relatively low-key security measures before the “Friday of Martyrs” processions that were to have begun from 28 mosques in the capital after weekly prayers.
 
But midday prayers were canceled at some mosques and few major protests unfolded in Cairo, although witnesses said at least 1,000 people staged a march in the Mohandiseen district.
 
There were no reports of violence in that procession, but the Brotherhood's website said one person had been killed in the Nile Delta town of Tanta in clashes with security forces.
 
Brotherhood supporters also turned out in Alexandria, several Delta towns, the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, the north Sinai town of Rafah, and Assiut in the south, with minor skirmishes reported in some places.
 
“We are not afraid; it's victory or death,” said Mohamed Abdel Azim, a retired oil engineer who was among about 100 people marching slowly from a mosque near Cairo University.
 
“They intend to strike at Muslims,” the grey-bearded Azim said. “We'd rather die in dignity than live in oppression. We'll keep coming out until there's no one left.”
 
Despite his defiant words, the mood of the protesters seemed subdued, perhaps a sign that the crackdown and the round-up of Brotherhood leaders has chilled the rank-and-file.
 
Some marchers carried posters of Morsi, who was toppled by army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on July 3 after huge demonstrations against his rule.
 
“No to the coup,” they chanted.
 
“GOD WILL BRING DOWN SISI”
 
At another small protest in Cairo, a veiled nursery teacher with four children, who gave her name as Nasra, said: “God will make us victorious, even if many of us are hurt and even if it takes a long time. God willing, God will bring down Sisi.”
 
Egypt has endured the bloodiest civil unrest in its modern history since August 14 when police destroyed protest camps set up by Morsi's supporters in Cairo to demand his reinstatement.
 
The violence has alarmed Egypt's Western allies, but U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged that even a decision to cut off U.S. aid to Cairo might not influence its military rulers.
 
But he said Washington was re-evaluating its ties with Egypt. “There's no doubt that we can't return to business as usual, given what's happened,” he told CNN in an interview.
 
Some U.S. lawmakers have called for a halt to the $1.5 billion a year in mostly military assistance to Egypt to bolster its 1979 peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Military cooperation includes privileged U.S. access to the Suez Canal.
 
The Brotherhood, hounded by Egypt's new army-backed rulers, had called for demonstrations across the country against the crackdown, testing the resilience of its battered support base.
 
Security forces kept a watchful eye, but did not flood the streets, even near Cairo's central Fateh mosque, where gun battles killed scores of people last Friday and Saturday.
 
The mosque's metal gates and big front door were locked and chained. Prayers were canceled. Two armored vehicles were parked down the street, where people shopped at a busy market.
 
Only one riot police truck stood by near Rabaa al-Adawiya square in northeastern Cairo, home to the Brotherhood's biggest protest vigil until police and troops stormed in, killing hundreds of people, bulldozing barricades and burning tents.
 
SYMBOLIC VICTORY
 
The mosque there was closed for repairs. Workmen in blue overalls stood on scaffolding as they covered its charred walls with white paint. Children scavenged through piles of garbage.
 
Troops used barbed wire to block a main road to Nahda Square, the site of the smaller of the two Brotherhood sit-ins.
 
The authorities declared a month-long state of emergency last week and they enforce a nightly curfew.
 
They have also arrested many leading figures from the Brotherhood, all but decapitating an organization that won five successive votes in Egypt after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
 
In a symbolic victory for the army-dominated old order, Mubarak, an ex-military man who ruled Egypt for 30 years before he was toppled, was freed from jail on Thursday. His successor Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, remains behind bars.
 
The Brotherhood's “General Guide” Mohamed Badie, who was arrested on Tuesday, is due to go on trial on Sunday along with two other senior figures, Khairat al-Shater and Saad al-Katatni, on charges that include incitement to violence.
 
More than 1,000 people, including over 100 soldiers and police, have been killed in violence across Egypt since Morsi's overthrow. Brotherhood supporters say the toll is much higher.
 
Graffiti on a mosque wall in a rundown Cairo neighborhood illustrated the deep divisions that have emerged since Sisi's takeover. The spray-painted message “Yes to Sisi” had been crossed out and painted over with the word “traitor.”
 
Slogans elsewhere read “Morsi is a spy” and “Morsi out”. Someone had also written “Freedom, Justice, Brotherhood”.
 
The Brotherhood, founded in 1928, operated mostly underground before emerging as Egypt's best-organized political force after Mubarak fell. Its popularity waned during Morsi's year in office when critics accused it of accumulating power, pushing a partisan Islamist agenda and mismanaging the economy.
 
The Brotherhood, which Egypt's new army-backed rulers have threatened to dissolve, says Morsi's government was deliberately undermined by unreformed Mubarak-era institutions.
 
Mubarak, 85, still faces retrial on charges of complicity in the killings of protesters, but he left jail on Thursday for the first time since April 2011 and was flown by helicopter to a plush military hospital in the southern Cairo suburb of Maadi.
 
The authorities have used the state of emergency to keep him under house arrest, apparently to minimize the risk of popular anger if he had been given unfettered freedom.
 
Additional reporting by Cairo bureau; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Will Waterman

Israel lobbying U.S., EU to support Egypt’s military government


The Israeli government is pressing its efforts to convince the United States and the European Union to support the military-backed government in Egypt.

The New York Times reported late Sunday that Israeli ambassadors in Washington and the European capitals will lobby foreign ministers, and that Israeli leaders will urge diplomats to see the Israeli viewpoint that the Egyptian military will prevent a further deterioration of the situation in Cairo.

The newspaper cited an unnamed “senior Israeli official involved in the effort.”

“If you insist on big principles, then you will miss the essential — the essential being putting Egypt back on track at whatever cost,” the official told the Times. “First, save what you can, and then deal with democracy and freedom and so on. At this point it’s army or anarchy.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered government officials to refrain from publicly discussing the situation in Egypt.

Israel reportedly has been lobbying American officials hard to sustain the annual $1.5 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt. President Obama has threatened to withhold the aid over a violent government crackdown on demonstrations in support of ousted President Mohamed Morsi that has resulted in more than 800 deaths since last week.

Last week, Obama canceled a planned joint military exercise with Egypt over the bloodshed.

Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the military coup that ousted Morsi, developed close ties with Israel when he headed Egypt’s military intelligence, according to the Times, and has remained in close contact with Israel throughout the recent violence and bloodshed.

Obama condemns violence in Egypt, cancels military exercises


President Barack Obama announced on Thursday that the United States is canceling joint military exercises with Egypt next month, saying normal U.S. cooperation cannot continue in light of the armed forces' bloody crackdown.

“The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt's interim government and security forces,” Obama said on the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard, where he is on vacation.

“We deplore violence against civilians. We support universal rights essential to human dignity, including the right to peaceful protest,” he said in his first remarks since the crackdown began early Wednesday. At least 525 people have been killed and thousands wounded.

Washington provides $1.3 billion in military aid and about $250 million in economic aid to Egypt every year, which it has been reluctant to cut off for fear of losing leverage there and in the broader region.

Stopping military exercises in Egypt was one clear way the White House could show its displeasure. Other than a previously announced decision to halt delivery of four U.S.-made F-16 fighters, it was the first significant U.S. move to penalize Egypt's military rulers.

Obama said the United States had informed Egyptian authorities it had canceled the joint military drill named “Bright Star” that had been scheduled for next month. He said the state of emergency should be lifted in Egypt and a process of national reconciliation started.

“While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” Obama said.

“Going forward, I've asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the interim government and further steps we may take as necessary with respect to the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.” He did not elaborate.

The military drill, which dates back to 1981, is seen as a cornerstone of U.S.-Egyptian military relations. It began after the Camp David Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel.

Obama, who departed for a game of golf shortly after making his statement, vented frustration that both sides in the Egyptian conflict were blaming the United States for the turmoil in the country since the military ousted Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, on July 3.

The United States has insisted it is not taking sides. But it chose not to condemn Morsi's ouster or call for his reinstatement, leaving the impression that it had tacitly sided with the military and accepted a coup.

“We've been blamed by supporters of Morsi. We've been blamed by the other side as if we are supporters of Morsi. That kind of approach will do nothing to help Egyptians achieve the future that they deserve,” Obama said.

“We want Egypt to succeed. We want a peaceful, democratic, prosperous Egypt. That's our interest. But to achieve that, the Egyptians are going to have to do the work.”

CALLS FOR END TO AID

On Thursday, hundreds of supporters of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood stormed a government building in Cairo and set it ablaze as fury over a security crackdown on the Islamist movement that killed hundreds of people spilled on to the streets.

Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation, is of strategic importance because of its peace treaty with close U.S. ally Israel and its control of the Suez Canal, a vital waterway for trade and for the U.S. military.

Held every two years, the “Bright Star” exercise also was canceled in 2011 because of the political turmoil in Egypt following the ouster of longtime autocrat and U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak.

Several thousand U.S. troops were slated to participate in the exercise, which was due to begin Sept. 18, said Max Blumenfeld, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and central Asia. He said past exercises focused on integration of naval forces, airborne operations, field exercises and disposal of explosive ordnance.

Some analysts and lawmakers questioned whether the cancellation of military exercises was enough.

“This falls well short of the fundamental rethinking and reorientation that is necessary right now,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.

“If the US wants to reestablish its leverage it will actually have to do something to show it is serious. The first serious step would be cutting aid, then there would be no doubt that finally the US is serious about using its leverage.”

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee in charge of foreign aid, said that military aid to Egypt should stop under a U.S. law that triggers an aid cutoff if a military coup has taken place. The administration has repeatedly said it has not determined whether the military's actions in Cairo amounted to a coup.

“While suspending joint military exercises as the president has done is an important step, our law is clear: aid to the Egyptian military should cease unless they restore democracy,” Leahy said in a statement.

The full Senate Appropriations Committee late last month voted to tie aid to Cairo to the restoration of a democratically elected government in Egypt. But the legislation is still working its way through Congress and has not become law.

Reporting by Steve Holland and Jeff Mason in Martha's Vineyard; additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Lesley Wroughton, Susan Heavey, Susan Cornwell, Andrea Shalal-Esa and Tabassum Zakaria in Washington; Editing by Warren Strobel and David Storey

Israel boosts rocket defenses on Egypt border


Israel has boosted its rocket defenses near its southern border with Egypt to counter possible attacks from Islamist militants fighting security forces in Egypt's Sinai peninsula, Israeli officials said on Tuesday.

Violence in Sinai has surged since the army ousted elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, with militants killing at least 20 people in almost daily assaults in the area.

“We hear reports every day of attacks there and our concern is that the guns will be turned on us,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said. “We have indeed strengthened our deployment along the border.”

He was speaking on a visit to an “Iron Dome” missile Defense system that was deployed last week in the southern town Eilat.

He said that since Morsi's overthrow, Egypt had increased its efforts to curb militants who have exploited a security vacuum in the Sinai since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

“We can see much more effective activity of the Egyptian army and security forces there in the past few months and mainly in the past few weeks after the change in government,” Yaalon said.

With Egyptian security forces pressing the militants, Israel was expecting trouble, one Israeli official said.

“The assessment in recent days is that given the Egyptian crackdown in Sinai, the terrorist elements there will try to demonstrate their survivability and defiance by shelling us,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.

A rocket fired from Sinai landed in Israel earlier this month and its remnants were found in hills north of Eilat, a Red Sea resort that abuts Egypt to the west and Jordan to the east.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Alistair Lyon

House appropriations bill would sustain Egypt funding


The U.S. House of Representatives foreign operations appropriations bill now under consideration does not stop assistance to Egypt despite the recent coup, in part because of considerations of Israeli security.

“Everyone is closely watching the situation in Egypt, and the relationship between the United States and Egypt has never been more critical,” Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee’s foreign operations subcommittee, said Friday in introducing debate within the subcommittee toward advancing it to the full committee. “For that reason, this bill continues funding if certain conditions are met.

“First and foremost, we see the Egyptian military continuing to uphold security arrangements, including the peace treaty with Israel, even while they address many competing priorities at home,” Granger said. “We expect the strong military-to-military relationship that Egypt has with Israel, and with the United States, to continue. We also make it clear in our conditions that we want Egypt to embrace democracy, not just democratic elections. We remain hopeful for the Egyptian people as they continue to go through this very difficult transition.”

A number of lawmakers, chief among them Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Granger’s Senate counterpart, have said that under U.S. law, the Egyptian military’s preeminent role this month in removing from power Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president, mandates a cut-off in assistance.

Leahy also said he would further examine the issue.

The Obama administration has gone to great lengths not to call the upheaval, occasioned by massive demonstrations by Egyptians unhappy with Morsi, a “coup” because it wants to preserve its relations with Egypt and its military.

Granger, in her remarks, also said that funding for Israel would not be affected by cuts otherwise mandated by the sequester, the formula which legislated across-the-board cuts of about 8 percent if Congress did not agree on a budget by March of this year.

“This bill continues to support our key strategic partner Israel by fully funding the Memorandum of Understanding,” Granger said, referring to the 2007 U.S. Israel agreement that set defense assistance to Israel at $30 billion over ten years. “This Subcommittee understands just how critical it is to support Israel. Whether it is the ongoing threat from Iran trying to pursue a nuclear weapon – or the instability that continues in the region – Israel’s security faces serious threats and the support from Congress has never been stronger.”

Granger also said that any further successes by the Palestinian Authority in achieving statehood recognition at U.N. bodies and any affiliation it might forge with Hamas would result in a cut-off in funding.

“Our economic assistance will stop if the Palestinian Authority achieves statehood or equivalent status at United Nations agencies, if they pursue actions at the International Criminal Court, or if they form a unity government with Hamas,” she said. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, while the Palestinian Authority is based in the West Bank.

She noted that Congress cut funds to UNESCO, the U.N.’s scientific and cultural arm, because of its decision last year to grant the Palestinians statehood status.

Violence overshadows new Egyptian cabinet; seven killed


Seven people were killed and more than 260 wounded when Islamist supporters of Mohamed Morsi fought opponents of the deposed Egyptian president and security forces, marking a return of violence that overshadowed the naming of an interim cabinet.

Egyptian authorities rounded up more than 400 people over the fighting which raged through the night into Tuesday, nearly two weeks after the army removed Morsi in response to mass demonstrations against him.

Interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi is forming a government to lead Egypt through a “road map” to restore full civilian rule and to tackle a chaotic economy.

A spokesman for the interim president said Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood had been offered cabinet posts and would participate in the transition. The Brotherhood, Egypt's leading Islamist movement, dismissed the remarks as lies, saying it would never yield its demand for Morsi's return.

Crisis in the Arab world's most populous state, which straddles the Suez Canal and has a strategic peace treaty with Israel, raises alarm for its allies in the region and the West.

Morsi's removal has bitterly divided Egypt, with thousands of his supporters maintaining a vigil in a Cairo square to demand his return, swelling to tens of thousands for mass demonstrations every few days.

Two people were killed at a bridge in central Cairo where police and local Morsi opponents clashed with some of his supporters who were blocking a route across the River Nile overnight. Another five were killed in the Cairo district of Giza, said the head of emergency services, Mohamed Sultan.

Morsi is being held incommunicado at an undisclosed location. He has not been charged with any crime but the authorities say they are investigating him over complaints of inciting violence, spying and wrecking the economy.

CALM SHATTERED

A week of relative calm had suggested peace might be returning, but that was shattered by the street battles into the early hours of Tuesday morning, the bloodiest since more than 50 Morsi supporters were killed a week ago.

“We were crouched on the ground, we were praying. Suddenly there was shouting. We looked up and the police were on the bridge firing tear gas down on us,” said pro-Morsi protester Adel Asman, 42, who was coughing, spitting and pouring Pepsi on his eyes to ease the effect of tear gas.

The new cabinet is mainly made up of technocrats and liberals, with an emphasis on resurrecting an economy wrecked by two and a half years of turmoil.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait – rich Gulf Arab states happy at the downfall of the Brotherhood – have promised a total of $12 billion in cash, loans and fuel.

Investors do not expect major reforms before a permanent government is put in place. The new planning minister, Ashraf al-Arabi, said on Monday that the Arab money would sustain Egypt through its transition and it did not need to restart talks with the International Monetary Fund on a stalled emergency loan.

Egypt had sought $4.8 billion in IMF aid last year, but months of talks ran aground with the government unable to agree on cuts in unaffordable subsidies for food and fuel. Arabi's comments could worry investors who want the IMF to prod reform.

Ahmed Elmoslmany, spokesman for interim President Adli Mansour, said the authorities expected the Brotherhood and other Islamists to agree to participate in national reconciliation and had offered them positions in the interim cabinet.

“I am hoping and expecting, and I am in contact with members from the Muslim Brotherhood, and I can see there is an acceptance to the idea,” he said.

But senior Brotherhood figure Mohamed El-Beltagi said the movement had not been offered posts, and would reject them if it had. “We will not see reconciliation unless it's on the basis of ending the military coup,” Beltagi said at a square near a Cairo mosque where thousands of Morsi supporters have maintained a vigil into its third week.

BURNS SPURNED?

By sunrise calm had returned. The unrest is more localized than in the days after Morsi was toppled when 92 people died, but Egyptians still worry about the continued unrest.

At Tahrir Square, rallying point for anti-Morsi protesters, a Reuters reporter saw teenagers in civilian T-shirts being handed rifles by troops in an armored vehicle. It was not clear if they were civilians or security personnel in plain clothes.

The violence took place on the last night of a two-day visit by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, the first senior Washington official to arrive since the army's takeover.

Washington, which supports Egypt with $1.5 billion a year mainly for its military, has so far avoided saying whether it regards the military action as a “coup”, language that would require it to halt aid.

The United States was never comfortable with the rise of Morsi's Brotherhood but had defended his legitimacy as Egypt's first elected leader. Its position has attracted outrage from both sides, which accuse it of meddling in Egypt's affairs.

“Only Egyptians can determine their future,” Burns told reporters at the U.S. embassy on Monday. “I did not come with American solutions. Nor did I come to lecture anyone. We will not try to impose our model on Egypt.”

The Islamist Nour Party and the Tamarud anti-Morsi protest movement both said they turned down invitations to meet Burns. A senior State Department official denied Burns had been shunned.

“I don't think we're losing influence at all,” the U.S. official said. “I don't know what meetings he has, but he has seen a range of people in Cairo in the interim government, in civil society … so it's hard to say he has been spurned by both sides. I don't accept that is the case.”

At the bridge in the early hours, young men, their mouths covered to protect them from tear gas, threw stones at police and shouted pro-Morsi and anti-military slogans, as well as “Allahu Akbar!” (God is greatest).

Military helicopters hovered overhead and police vans were brought in to quell the trouble. When that didn't work, dozens of riot police moved in. Medics treated men with deep gashes to their eyes and faces nearby.

“It's the army against the people, these are our soldiers, we have no weapons,” said Alaa el-Din, a 34-year-old computer engineer, clutching a laptop during the melee. “The army turned against the Egyptian people.”

Many of the top Brotherhood figures have been charged with inciting violence, but have not been arrested and are still at large. The public prosecutors' office announced new charges against seven Brotherhood and Islamist leaders on Monday.

The fast-paced army-backed “road map” to full civilian rule calls for a new constitution to be hammered out within weeks and put to a referendum, followed by parliamentary elections in about six months and a presidential vote soon after.

A former ambassador to the United States has been named foreign minister and a U.S.-educated economist is finance minister. A police general was put in charge of the supply ministry, responsible for the huge distribution system for state-subsidized food and fuel.

A musician was named culture minister, an appointment with symbolic overtones: she had been head of the Cairo Opera until she was fired by Morsi's Islamist government two weeks ago, prompting artists and intellectuals to besiege the ministry.

Additional reporting by Tom Finn, Yasmine Saleh, Edmund Blair, Alexander Dziadosz, Shadia Nasralla, Ali Abdelaty, Omar Fahmy, Peter Graff, Patrick Werr and Mike Collett-White in Cairo, Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Writing by Mike Collett-White and Peter Graff; editing by David Stamp

U.S. envoy spurned by both sides on Egypt visit


The first senior U.S. official to visit Egypt since the army toppled its elected president was snubbed by both Islamists and their opponents on Monday.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns arrived in a divided capital where both sides are furious at the United States, the superpower which supports Egypt with $1.5 billion in annual aid, mostly for the army that deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi two weeks ago.

Crisis in the Arab world's most populous state, which has a peace treaty with Israel and controls the strategic Suez Canal, has alarmed allies in the region and the West. Thousands of supporters of the ousted leader took to the streets on Monday.

Washington, never comfortable with the rise of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, has so far refused to say whether it views Morsi's removal as a coup, which would require it to halt aid.

The State Department said Burns would meet “civil society groups” as well as government officials, but the Islamist Nour Party and the Tamarud anti-Morsi protest movement both said they had turned down invitations to meet Burns.

“First, they need to acknowledge the new system,” Tamarud founder Mahmoud Badr said of the Americans. “Secondly, they must apologize for their support for the Muslim Brotherhood's party and terrorism. Then we can think about it,” he told Reuters.

In a further slight, Badr posted a copy of his invitation, including the U.S. embassy's telephone number, on the Internet.

Nour, sometime allies of Morsi's Brotherhood who have accepted the army takeover, said they had rejected meeting Burns because of “unjustified” U.S. meddling in Egypt's affairs.

The Brotherhood's political party said it had no meeting planned with Burns. It was not immediately clear whether it was invited. While its opponents accuse Washington of backing Morsi, the Brotherhood suspects U.S. involvement in his removal.

PROTESTS

Burns did meet Adli Mansour, a judge installed as interim president by the army, and Hazem el-Beblawi, a liberal economist named interim prime minister. Beblawi is setting up a temporary cabinet staffed mainly by technocrats to lead the country under a “road map” foreseeing elections in about six months.

Islamists, who have maintained a vigil demanding Morsi be reinstated, called a mass protest for Monday. Demonstrations in Cairo have been largely peaceful for the past week after at least 92 people were killed in the days after Morsi was toppled.

Two rows of armored personnel carriers were in place near the mosque square in northeast Cairo where Morsi supporters have maintained their vigil. Barbed wire was blocking the street leading from the protest site to the Republican Guard barracks, scene of the worst violence a week ago when uniformed snipers were filmed firing from the rooftops into crowds.

As thousands of protesters assembled on Monday, a group of women clapped and chanted: “Down with the military regime! Down with the dictator! President Morsi, no one else!”

Demonstrators fasting for the holy month of Ramadan rested in the shadow of tents reading the Koran. Army helicopters had flown above overnight, dropping fliers exhorting the crowd to renounce violence and end their sit-in.

Abdel Khalid Abu Zeinia, a 50-year-old accountant camped at the square for 11 days in support of Morsi, said of Burns's visit: “America works against the Egyptian people's interests. America's only concern is its interests, and Israel's. America offers only words, not practical support to democracy.”

If Burns drove through downtown a few miles away, he might have seen a giant banner with a portrait of U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson and the message “Go home, witch!”. It was hung by Morsi's foes, who are as angry with America as his supporters.

INCOMMUNICADO

Morsi is being held incommunicado at an undisclosed location.

He has not been charged with a crime but the authorities say they are investigating him over complaints of inciting violence, spying and wrecking the economy. Scores of Morsi supporters were rounded up after violence last week.

Most of the top Brotherhood leaders have been charged with inciting violence but are still at large with the police not following through on arrest warrants.

Morsi's foes have also called for a demonstration on Monday, but their rallies have become sparsely attended since they achieved their objective of bringing him down.

Beblawi has been naming ministers for his interim cabinet, including a former ambassador to the United States as foreign minister, a sign of the importance Cairo places in its relationship with its superpower sponsor.

U.S.-educated economist Ahmed Galal, as finance minister, has the task of rescuing an economy and state finances wrecked by two and a half years of turmoil.

That task became easier, at least in the short term, after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, Arab states happy at the downfall of the Brotherhood, promised a total of $12 billion in cash, loans and fuel.

The new planning minister, Ashraf al-Arabi, an economist who also served in that role for a time under Morsi, said the Arab money would be enough to sustain Egypt through its transition period, and it was “not appropriate” now for Egypt to restart talks with the International Monetary Fund.

Egypt had sought $4.8 billion in IMF aid last year, but months of talks ran aground with the government unable to agree steep cuts in unaffordable food and fuel subsidies. Arabi's comments could worry investors who want IMF talks as a spur to prod Egypt to make economic reforms.

“It think it's inappropriate to be making such a strong statement, given how new he is to the position,” Angus Blair, president of Signet Institute, an economic think-tank for the Middle East and North Africa, said of Arabi's remarks.

“I think it would encourage all investors if the IMF funding and its additional contingent aid would be viewed as part of the overall financial equation for Egypt. There's so much to be done to boost economic growth.”

Beblawi also placed a police general in charge of the supply ministry which manages the huge distribution network for subsidized goods, a sign the government may focus on cleaning up a notoriously corrupt system.

U.S. CRITICISED

A lack of clarity over the U.S. position has fueled anti-Americanism on both sides. U.S. ambassador Patterson angered Morsi's enemies in the weeks before he was ousted by emphasizing his electoral legitimacy and discouraging protests against him.

Last week, the State Department further muddied the waters by saying Morsi's rule was undemocratic, a comment interpreted in Cairo as implying his removal was legitimate. Washington has also called for him to be freed and political detentions halted.

“The goal of his trip is to engage with and hear directly from interim Egyptian officials and civil society as part of our ongoing efforts to see Egypt transition to an inclusive, pluralistic, democratically elected civilian government,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said ahead of Burns's trip.

The interim authorities say the new government is open to all, including even the Brotherhood, an invitation spurned by Morsi's backers who refuse to have any dealings with “usurpers”.

The political turmoil and unrest in major cities has also fueled violence in Egypt's lawless North Sinai province bordering Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip, where Islamist militants have called for people to rise up against the army.

A series of attacks in the area have claimed at least 13 lives, mainly security personnel, since July 3. In the latest assault, suspected militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at a bus carrying workers from a cement factory in the Sinai city of El Arish, killing three and wounding 17.

Additional reporting by Peter Graff, Shadia Nasralla, Noah Browning, Ulf Laessing, Ali Abdelaty, Patrick Werr and Mike Collett-White in Cairo and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

Egypt’s bruised Islamists protest after bloody week


Islamist supporters of Egypt's ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, protested in Cairo on Friday after a week of violence in which more than 90 people were killed in a bitterly divided nation.

More than a week after the army toppled Egypt's first elected leader after a wave of demonstrations against him, Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood is trying to mobilize popular support for his reinstatement, which for now looks like a lost cause.

At a Cairo mosque where Morsi supporters have held vigil for more than two weeks, crowds swelled as people were bused in from the provinces, where the Brotherhood has strongholds.

The streets of Cairo were otherwise quiet on Friday, the weekly Muslim day of prayer, in the holy month of Ramadan.

The youth-led Tamarud group, which brought millions of people to the streets to demand Morsi resign, has called for a Ramadan celebration in Tahrir Square, the cradle of the uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Officials say Morsi is still being held at the Republican Guard compound in Cairo, where troops killed 53 Islamist protesters on Monday in violence that intensified anger his allies already felt at the military's decision to oust him.

Four members of the security forces were also killed in that confrontation, which the military blames on “terrorists”. Morsi's supporters call it a massacre and say those who died were praying peacefully when troops opened fire.

Many of Egypt's 84 million people have been shocked by the shootings, graphic images of which have appeared on state and private news channels and social media. The incident occurred just three days after 35 people were killed in clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators across the country.

“It's a very hard time for Egyptians, to see footage of blood and violence during the holy month of Ramadan, and everyone I speak to says the same thing,” said Fateh Ali, a 54-year-old civil servant in Cairo.

The Brotherhood contends it is the victim of a military crackdown, evoking memories of its suppression under Mubarak.

But many of its opponents blame Islamists for the violence, and some have little sympathy for the demonstrators who died, underlining how deep the fissures in Egyptian society are.

The unrest has also raised fear over security in the lawless Sinai peninsula bordering Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip.

Militant groups in North Sinai have promised more attacks and urged Islamists to take up arms, while the army has vowed to step up operations in the region, which is near the Suez Canal, the busy waterway linking Asia and Europe.

One Egyptian policeman was killed and another wounded early on Friday when militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at checkpoints in the Sinai town of El Arish.

Egyptian state media said police arrested three Palestinian militants for attempted attacks in Sinai.

VIGIL, SONGS FOR THE DEAD

Outside the Rabaa Adawiya mosque in northeastern Cairo, thousands of Brotherhood supporters gathered late on Thursday to mourn the dead in Monday's violence, the deadliest since Mubarak was toppled, apart from a 2012 soccer stadium riot.

Women wailed and men cried as they watched a large screen showing grim footage of hospital scenes immediately after the shooting, with corpses on the floor and medics struggling to cope with the number of bloodied casualties being carried in.

Hundreds of Egyptian flags fluttered. Songs of defiance were sung. Thousands of Islamists have camped out in searing heat, fasting in the daytime since Ramadan began on Wednesday.

“This is a bloody military coup,” said Saad Al-Husseini at the vigil. “This is the biggest crime I have witnessed in my country's recent history. Never before has blood been so cheap.”

The camp has become the de facto base of the Brotherhood, whose leaders live under the threat of detention after the public prosecutor ordered their arrests earlier in the week.

Judicial sources say Morsi is likely to be charged, possibly for corruption or links to violence. Prosecutors are also looking again at an old case from 2011 when Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders escaped from prison after being detained during anti-Mubarak protests.

The detentions and threats of arrest have drawn concern from the United States, which has walked a semantic tightrope to avoid calling Morsi's ouster a military coup.

U.S. law bars aid to countries where a democratic government is removed in a coup. Washington, which gives Egypt's military $1.3 billion in aid each year, has said it is too early to say whether Morsi's removal by the army meets that description.

The army has said it was enforcing the nation's will – meaning the huge crowds of people fed up with economic stagnation and suspicious of a Brotherhood power grab who took to the streets in late June to demand Morsi's departure.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Wednesday Morsi's government “wasn't a democratic rule”.

Her words were warmly received by the interim government and swiftly denounced by the Brotherhood. On Thursday, Psaki expressed concern over the crackdown on Brotherhood leaders.

“If politicized arrests and detentions continue, it is hard to see how Egypt will move beyond this crisis,” she said.

German's foreign ministry demanded that Morsi be freed.

ALARM OVERSEAS

Crucial to longer-term stability will be holding parliamentary and presidential elections, which the transitional authorities are hoping to achieve in a matter of months.

Adli Mansour, the interim president named by the general who removed Morsi, has announced a temporary constitution, plans to amend it to satisfy parties' demands and a faster-than-expected schedule for parliamentary elections in about six months.

He has named liberal economist Hazem el-Beblawi as interim prime minister, and Beblawi said he had named leftist lawyer Ziad Bahaa el-Din as his deputy. Beblawi also said he would contact candidates for ministerial posts on Sunday and Monday, with a view to swearing in a cabinet next week.

Negotiations are difficult, with the authorities trying to attract support from groups that range from secularists to ultra-orthodox Muslims, nearly all of whom expressed deep dissatisfaction with elements of the interim constitution.

Underlining the level of concern overseas at Egypt's crisis, two U.S. Navy ships patrolling in the Middle East moved closer to Egypt's Red Sea coast in recent days, in what appeared to be a precautionary move following Morsi's ouster on July 3.

The United States often sends Navy vessels close to countries in turmoil in case it needs to protect or evacuate U.S. citizens or give humanitarian assistance.

Rich Gulf states have thrown Egypt a $12 billion lifeline in financial aid, which should help it stave off economic collapse.

More than two years of turmoil have scared away tourists and investors, shriveled hard currency reserves and threatened Cairo's ability to import food and fuel.

Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz, Sarah McFarlane, Mike Collett-White, Tom Finn, Peter Graff, Ali Saed, Seham el-Oraby and Shadia Nasralla in Cairo and Andrea Shalal-Esa and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Writing by Mike Collett-White and Peter Graff; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Egypt welcomes U.S. remarks on Morsi; food stocks dwindle


Egypt's interim rulers welcomed on Thursday remarks from the U.S. State Department describing the rule of toppled leader Mohamed Morsi as undemocratic, read in Cairo as a signal that Washington will not cut off its $1.5 billion in annual aid.

In a stark illustration of the desperate state of Egypt's economy, a former minister from Morsi's ousted government said Egypt has less than two months' supply left of imported wheat, revealing a far worse shortage than previously disclosed.

The army's removal of Egypt's first freely elected leader last week, after millions took to the streets to protest against him, has left the Arab world's most populous country polarized by divisions unseen in its modern history.

Violence between supporters of Morsi and soldiers at a military compound this week has deepened the fissures.

Washington has been treading a careful line. U.S. law bars aid to countries where a democratic government is removed in a coup. So far Washington has said it is too early to say whether the Egyptian events meet that description.

Nevertheless, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Wednesday Morsi's government “wasn't a democratic rule”.

“What I mean is what we've been referencing about the 22 million people who have been out there voicing their views and making clear that democracy is not just about simply winning the vote at the ballot box.”

The new U.S. remarks were warmly received by the interim government and swiftly denounced by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.

The comments “reflect understanding and realization about the political developments that Egypt is witnessing in recent days, as embodying the will of the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets,” said Egypt's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Badr Abdelatty.

Brotherhood spokesman Gehad Haddad said the remarks showed American hypocrisy: “There is no way the Egyptian army would have gone through with this coup if it would not have been sanctioned by the U.S.”

VIOLENCE

Two and a half years of political turmoil has left Egypt on the brink of economic collapse, scaring away tourists and investors, shriveling hard currency reserves and threatening its ability to import food and fuel for its 84 million people.

Speaking to Reuters near midnight in a tent at a vigil by thousands of Morsi supporters, the ousted president's supply minister, Bassem Ouda, revealed that government stocks held just 500,000 metric tons of imported wheat.

Egypt, the world's biggest buyer, usually imports about 10 million metric tons of wheat a year, half of which is given out by the state in the form of subsidized bread sold for less than one U.S. cent a loaf.

The imported wheat stock figure, previously a closely-guarded secret, means Egypt will need to urgently start spending a $12 billion financial aid lifeline it has been given in the past two days by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, rich Gulf states that welcomed Morsi's downfall.

Egypt had not bought any imported wheat since February, its longest absence from the market in years, until the eve of Morsi's downfall when it bought 180,000 metric tons.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said in a report that Egypt risked serious food security problems if insecurity and a shortage of foreign currency hinder imports.

“I think the aim of the Arab countries is to make sure Egypt doesn't fail with respect to food security and financial commitments with the international banking system, so I would think they will push to get the aid through quickly,” said Kisan Gunjal, economist and food emergency Officer at the FAO.

ROAD MAP

Adli Mansour, the interim president named by the general who removed Morsi, has moved briskly to implement an army “road map” to restore civilian rule. This week he announced a temporary constitution, plans to amend it and a faster-than-expected schedule for parliamentary elections in about six months.

He also named 76-year-old liberal economist Hazem el-Beblawi as interim prime minister. Beblawi held his first meetings with political leaders on Wednesday and told Reuters that he expects the transitional cabinet to be in place early next week.

Negotiations are difficult, with the authorities trying to attract support from groups that range from secularists to ultra-orthodox Muslims, nearly all of whom expressed deep dissatisfaction with elements of the interim constitution.

Those political moves have been accompanied by a crackdown on the Brotherhood, the Islamist movement which worked in the shadows for 85 years before emerging as Egypt's best-organized political force when autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011.

On Wednesday, Egypt's public prosecutor ordered the arrest of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie and several other senior Islamists, accusing them of inciting violence on Monday when 53 Morsi supporters and four members of the security forces were killed in a dawn clash near a barracks.

Morsi's supporters say those killed were peacefully praying when fired upon. The army says terrorists provoked the violence by attacking its troops.

Morsi's whereabouts have not been revealed. The government says he is safe at an undisclosed location.

Thousands of Brotherhood supporters have maintained an around-the-clock vigil near a mosque in northeast Cairo demanding he be reinstated, an aim that now seems in vain.

The start of the Ramadan Muslim fasting month has done little to dampen the Brotherhood protest. Supporters are sheltering in tents from the summer heat during daylight hours when they are forbidden to eat or drink, and coming out in greater numbers in the evening.

They have called for protest marches on Friday, the Muslim prayer day, as has the anti-Morsi Tamarud group, raising the risk of more violence. Fighting between Morsi's supporters and foes killed 35 people last Friday, although the situation in Cairo and other cities has been calmer since Monday's clash.

Both sides in Egypt have become more anti-American in recent weeks. Morsi's opponents say President Barack Obama's administration supported the Muslim Brotherhood in power, while Morsi's supporters believe Washington was behind the plot to unseat him.

“Obama supports democracy, but only if it goes to those who aren't Islamists,” heavily bearded Morsi supporter El-Sayyed Abdel Rabennabi said at the Brotherhood vigil.

On Tahrir Square, where Morsi's opponents gather, the animosity is no less fierce. In the days before Morsi's downfall, the U.S. ambassador in Cairo attracted criticism from Morsi's opponents for a speech that stressed Morsi was democratically elected and discouraged street protests.

“America made an alliance with the Brotherhood against the Egyptian people,” said aircraft mechanic Tawfiq Munir at a recent rally there. “Now the Brotherhood are fighting us in the streets, fighting to take back power, and America is sitting on the fence.”

Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz, Maggie Fick, Mike Collett-White, Tom Perry, Peter Graff, Ali Saed, Seham el-Oraby and Shadia Nasralla; writing by Peter Graff; editing by Philippa Fletcher

Egypt seeks end to crisis with quick elections


Egypt's interim rulers unveiled a quick timetable for elections and won a $3 billion cash lifeline from the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, a day after 55 people were killed when troops fired on a crowd supporting ousted President Mohamed Morsi.

The worst day of violence in more than a year has left Egypt more divided than ever in its modern history, and added to pressure on the military-led authorities to explain how they will restore democracy after the army toppled Morsi last week.

Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood rejected the proposed plan for constitutional changes and elections to be held in about six months, holding fast to its demand for the reinstatement of Egypt's first freely elected leader.

Senior Brotherhood figure Essam El-Erian condemned “a constitutional decree issued after midnight by a person appointed by the putchists, usurping the legislative power from a council elected by the people, and bringing the country back to stage zero”.

In an important signal for the transitional authorities, the ultra-orthodox Islamist Nour Party said it would accept ex-finance minister Samir Radwan as prime minister, potentially paving the way for an interim cabinet.

The Brotherhood says Monday's violence was an unprovoked attack on worshippers holding peaceful prayers. But in a sign of the country's deep divisions, most Cairo residents seemed to accept the official account and blamed the Brotherhood for its members' deaths. That has left the deposed president's followers isolated and angrier than ever.

The bloodshed in the Arab world's most populous nation has raised alarm among key donors such as the United States and the European Union, as well as in Israel, with which Egypt has had a U.S.-backed peace treaty since 1979.

[Related: Egypt receives Arab billions, names prime minister]

Millions of people took to the streets on June 30 to demand Morsi's resignation, fearing he was orchestrating a creeping Islamist takeover of the state.

To the Brotherhood, his removal amounted to the reversal of democracy a year after he became Egypt's first freely elected leader. Islamists fear a return to the suppression they endured for decades under autocratic rulers.

“The only road map is the restoration of the president elected by the people,” said Hoda Ghaneya, 45, a Muslim Brotherhood women's activist. “We will not accept less than that, even if they kill us all.”

MORE PROTESTS CALLED

The streets of Cairo were quiet on Tuesday but the Brotherhood called for more protests later in the day, raising the risk of further violence.

Medical sources confirmed at least 55 people had been killed, raising the death toll in the incident, the deadliest in the two-and-a-half years of Egypt's political turmoil apart from a riot at a soccer stadium in 2012.

Thousands of pro-Morsi protesters are now camped out at a mosque in northeast Cairo, while elsewhere in the city residents are flying banners from their balconies with portraits of the military commander who toppled him.

Egyptian media, mainly controlled by the state and Morsi's opponents, praised the army and denounced Monday's violence as the provocation of terrorists. Cairenes seemed to agree.

“Of course I condemn this: Egyptian versus Egyptian. But the people attacked the army, not the other way around,” said Abdullah Abdel Rayal, 58, shopping in a street market in downtown Cairo on Tuesday morning.

UAE PROVIDES CASH

Arab states, long suspicious of the Brotherhood, have signalled support for Morsi's overthrow. UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed became the most senior foreign official to visit Egypt since the army toppled Morsi last week.

He brought a promise of a grant of $1 billion and a loan of $2 billion, money that will help Egypt provide food and fuel for its 84 million people. That replenishes funds which have been running desperately short after two years of unrest drove away tourists and investors.

An Egyptian source close to negotiations said Saudi Arabia would also lend $2 billion within two days. Both Gulf countries had promised money after former autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011 but never sent the aid while Morsi's Brotherhood was in power.

Adli Mansour, the judge named head of state by the army when it brought down Morsi last week, decreed overnight that a parliamentary vote would be held in about six months, faster than many expected. That would be followed by a presidential election. An amended constitution would be put to a referendum.

The military-backed authorities seem to be resigned to restarting politics without the Brotherhood. Instead, they are courting the support of the country's other main Islamist group, the ultra-orthodox Nour Party, Morsi's occasional allies.

In what appeared to be an olive branch to Islamists that irritated liberals, Mansour's decree included language put into the constitution last year that defined the principles of Islamic sharia law.

Nour said on Monday it was pulling out of all talks towards a transition as a result of the attack on Morsi supporters. But its signal that it would support a former finance minister as prime minister showed it has not fully abandoned politics.

Radwan, the former finance minister, has emerged as favourite to lead a government after Nour rejected Mohamed ElBaradei, a former U.N. diplomat and secularist politician.

Nour spokesman Nader Bakkar said Radwan met its conditions: “We asked for a technocrat economist … a neutral guy.”

BLOODSTAINED SHEETS

Protesters said Monday's shooting started as they performed morning prayers outside the barracks. Military spokesman Ahmed Ali said that at 4 a.m. (0200 GMT) armed men attacked troops in the area in the northeast of the city. Emergency services said in addition to the dead 435 people were wounded.

At a hospital near Cairo's Rabaa Adawiya mosque, where many of the wounded and dead were taken on Monday, rooms were crammed full, sheets were stained with blood.

On Friday, clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi supporters had swept across Egyptian cities, killing 35 people.

Nathan Brown, a leading expert on Egypt's constitution at George Washington University in Washington, said that while the overnight decree laid out a clear sequence for transition, it repeated some mistakes made two years ago, after Mubarak.

“It was drawn up by an anonymous committee; it was issued by executive fiat; the timetable is rushed; the provisions for consultation are vague; and it promises inclusiveness but gives no clear procedural guidelines for it,” he told Reuters.

Although Tuesday was comparatively quiet, there were minor incidents reported by late morning. Gunmen fired on a church in Port Said at the mouth of the Suez Canal overnight. Two people were wounded, medical sources said.

The West has had a difficult time formulating a public response, after years of pushing Arab leaders towards democracy while at the same time nervous about the Brotherhood's rise. Demonstrators on both sides in Egypt have chanted anti-American slogans, accusing Washington of backing their enemies.

Washington has refrained from calling the military intervention a “coup” – a label that under U.S. law would require it to halt aid. It called on Egypt's army to exercise “maximum restraint” but has said it is not about to halt funding for Egypt, including the $1.3 billion it gives the military.

The army has insisted that the overthrow was not a coup and that it was enforcing the “will of the people” after millions took to the streets on June 30 to call for Morsi's resignation.

Iran says Egyptian army interference is ‘unacceptable’


Iran on Monday called the Egyptian army's ousting of president Mohamed Morsi “unacceptable” and said Israel and the West did not want to see a powerful Egypt.

The comments from Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araqchi were more disapproving than his immediate reaction last Thursday, when he merely called for the Egyptian people's “legitimate demands” to be fulfilled.

Iran welcomed the popular overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, calling it an “Islamic awakening” inspired in part by its own 1979 revolution, and after Morsi's election victory last year it sought to repair its strained ties with Egypt.

However, the two countries now have found themselves supporting opposite sides in the civil war in Syria. While Shi'ite Iran is President Bashar al-Assad's closest Arab ally, largely Sunni Muslim Egypt under Morsi has voiced its support for the mostly Sunni rebel groups seeking to overthrow Assad.

On Monday, Araqchi said: “What is important is giving significance to the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people,” according to the Mehr news agency.

“However, military intervention in politics is unacceptable and a cause for concern.”

Araqchi warned against greater divisions in Egyptian society, adding: “Certainly foreign hands are also at work, and … the West and the Zionist regime (Israel) will not want a powerful Egypt.”

Several dozen people were killed on Monday when Islamist demonstrators enraged by the Morsi's overthrow said the army opened fire on them at the Cairo barracks where he was being held. The military said a group of armed assailants had tried to storm the compound and soldiers returned fire.

Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Jon Hemming and Kevin Liffey

Sources: Mohamed ElBaradei to be named Egypt’s interim Prime Minister


Mohamed ElBaradei, a former U.N. nuclear agency chief, will be named Egypt's interim prime minister later on Saturday, a presidential source told Reuters.

Interim head of state Adli Mansour was installed on Thursday to oversee a military roadmap to elections, the day after the army overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Mursi.

ElBaradei was among liberal leaders who opposed Mursi and called for the massive protests that showed how the Muslim Brotherhood had angered millions of Egyptians.

Mansour held talks on Saturday with the army chief and political leaders, including ElBaradei, on how to pull the country out of crisis as the death toll from Islamist protests over the army's overthrow of Mursi rose to at least 35.

Mansour later summoned ElBaradei back to the presidential palace, the state news agency reported, without giving more details.

The prime minister will be sworn in at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT), state newspaper Al-Ahram reported, not naming who will be sworn in.

Mahmoud Badr, founder of the “Tamarud-Rebel!” movement that organised the mass anti-Mursi demonstrations, told Reuters that he had been informed by an aide to Mansour that ElBaradei had been selected.

A senior official in the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood's political wing, said he rejected Mohamed ElBaradei's appointment as interim prime minister and described him as Washington's choice.

“We reject this coup and all that results from it, including ElBaradei,” Farid Ismail told Reuters at an Islamist gathering in northern Cairo.

Political sources have said ElBaradei, who won the Nobel peace prize for his work as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), would also be acceptable to Western governments that have been reluctant to call the removal of Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood a military coup. 

Reporting by Yasmine Saleh and Paul Taylor; writing by Maggie Fick, editing by Sarah McFarlane

Egyptian Islamists attack on Gaza border


Islamists attacked Egyptian military posts in the Sinai, killing at least one on the Gaza border.

The attack on the police post at Rafah, a city on the Gaza-Egypt border with a Palestinian side and an Egyptian side, was one of several attacks Friday by Islamists on Egyptian security forces. Two other men were wounded in the Rafah attack.

Assailants also fired fired rocket-propelled grenades at army checkpoints at the El-Arish airport in the Sinai.

The attacks came as Egypt was bracing for mass protests Friday by supporters of Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian president who was deposed Wednesday by the army after a year in power. Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, called the action a coup.

Egyptian Army and Islamists in deadly clashes


Egyptian soldiers killed at least three supporters of Mohamed Morsi in Cairo hours after Islamists attacked sites in the Sinai.

The Morsi supporters were shot while trying to breach the Cairo barracks where the deposed Egyptian president is being held by the army.

Supporters in cities across Egypt on Friday protested Wednesday’s coup, which removed Morsi from power a little more than a year after his election as president.

Earlier in the day, Islamists attacked Egyptian military posts in the Sinai, killing at least one on the Gaza border.

The attack on the police post at Rafah, a city on the Gaza-Egypt border with a Palestinian side and an Egyptian side, was one of several attacks Friday by Islamists on Egyptian security forces. Two other men were wounded in the Rafah attack.

Assailants also fired fired rocket-propelled grenades at army checkpoints at the El-Arish airport in the Sinai.

Muslim Brotherhood claims new Egyptian President is Jewish


The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s website briefly posted an article claiming that the country’s current interim president is Jewish.

The article, which appeared Thursday on IkhwanOnline, has since been taken down, though a translation is still available online. It claimed that Adly Mansour, the judge named Egypt’s interim president following the removal of Mohamed Morsi from office by the military, is Jewish.  Read more here.

The article claimed that Mansour is in cahoots with Israel and the United States as part of an elaborate conspiracy theory.

Tough congressional language limits Obama’s Egypt options


When it comes to foreign assistance, American law couldn’t be clearer: A coup d’etat suspends funding, period.

But that directive, which has persisted for years in federal appropriations bills, is now clashing with another congressional priority: the apparent desire to foster an alternative to Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s democratically elected Islamist president who was removed from power this week by the Egyptian military.

In recent months, Congress has intimated that it would be happier if his secular foes in the military were running the country. But the law ties Congress’ hands.

On July 3, President Obama said he would “review” what the coup means for American aid.

“We are deeply concerned by the decision of the Egyptian Armed Forces to remove President Morsi and suspend the Egyptian constitution,” Obama said in a statement. “I now call on the Egyptian military to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible through an inclusive and transparent process, and to avoid any arbitrary arrests of President Morsi and his supporters. Given today’s developments, I have also directed the relevant departments and agencies to review the implications under U.S. law for our assistance to the Government of Egypt.”

Following mass demonstrations from an increasing restive population, Morsi was removed this week and replaced with the country’s chief justice, Adli Mansour, in the latest development to roil Egypt and a region already on edge from Syria’s ongoing civil war.

The United States provides some $1.8 billion in aid to Egypt annually, most of it defense assistance conditioned on Egypt’s observance of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Congressional leaders cited those circumstances in suggesting that the Obama administration work with the interim government.

But other lawmakers, while noting the flaws in Morsi’s leadership and the popular uprising that led to his ouster, underscored that the language in the appropriations bill left virtually no wiggle room.

“Egypt’s military leaders say they have no intent or desire to govern, and I hope they make good on their promise,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the longtime chairman of the Senate’s foreign operations appropriation subcommittee. “In the meantime, our law is clear: U.S. aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree. As we work on the new budget, my committee also will review future aid to the Egyptian government as we wait for a clearer picture.”

Unlike many other spending provisions, the language regarding a coup d’etat does not include a presidential waiver. That leaves the Obama administration three options for working around the provision: Obtain congressional agreement to add a waiver within the next few weeks; accelerate the democratic replacement of Egypt’s interim government; or use executive privilege to work around the lack of a congressional waiver.

The first two options are unlikely. Congress can barely agree on a budget, let alone a waiver on a sensitive issue like Egypt. And with Egypt already roiling with violence, its military would be loath to facilitate the return of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood to power through a hastily arranged election.

The third option — exercising the prerogative of the president to advance foreign policy — could undercut U.S. credibility overseas, conveying an impression Obama has tried to correct: that the United States supports the powers it prefers, regardless of the will of the people.

Obama appears to be hoping for the democracy option. In conversations with Egyptian officials, Obama’s national security team “emphasized the importance of a quick and responsible return of full authority to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told JTA.

U.S., Israeli officials confer on Egypt


Top U.S. and Israeli officials exchanged a series of phone calls Thursday to discuss the situation in Egypt.

The phone calls followed President Obama’s news conference Thursday night on the volatile situation in Egypt, where the army ousted President Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday. On Friday, Islamists staged several attacks against Egyptian authorities in the Sinai, killing at least one.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after Obama’s remarks. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and Obama’s national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, also spoke with her Israeli counterpart, Yaakov Amidror, Haaretz reported.

Interim Egyptian president installed, Israel quiet and cautious


Egypt swore in an interim president as Israel kept a low profile following the ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

Adli Mansour, chief justice of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court, was sworn in Thursday as Egypt’s interim president less than a day after Morsi was deposed by the country’s military in a near-bloodless coup. Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, reportedly is being held by the military under house arrest. Mansour will serve in the position until new elections are held.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered his cabinet ministers not to give interviews or offer any public opinions about the current situation in Egypt, Haaretz reported Thursday. Still, according to Israeli media, the Israeli government is following the events in its neighbor to the south carefully.

Former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi told the Jerusalem Post on Thursday that the toppling of Morsi’s presidency does not place Israel in immediate danger, since the Egyptian army is currently too busy with domestic issues.

“Even in the year the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, they did not renege on the (1979 Israeli-Egyptian) peace treaty, and as far as stopping smuggling (from Sinai into the Gaza Strip) and handling Hamas, they were reasonable,” he told the newspaper.

But there could be a risk that Islamic militants would take advantage of a decreased Egyptian military presence in the Sinai Peninsula in order to attack Israel, he said, according to the Post.

Labor lawmaker Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, in an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz, praised the deposing of Morsi and warned that democracy would not last much longer in Egypt.

“The shake-up in Egypt will continue no matter who is elected, until Egypt returns to its secular base. It’s not just the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that’s the problem, but the entire (Islamist) movement – that hoped to take over the regime after 85 years.”

“Interim President Adli Mansour is a man of the old regime, and I assume he will work quickly to abolish the constitution and bring about new elections,” he also told Haaretz.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas praised the ouster of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, Haaretz reported, while top PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo said: “This is a historic day for Egypt, and we are learning a lesson from the Egyptian example. Hamas should take note of what popular will can achieve.”

Several hours after the expiration of a 48-hour ultimatum by the military ordering Morsi to respond to the demands of tens of thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets in recent weeks, Defense Minister Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi said Wednesday evening that the army had fulfilled its “historic responsibility” and ousted the president.

In an announcement on state television, the military said it was not taking power for itself, but only ensuring that “confidence and stability are secured for the people,” The New York Times reported.

According to the Times, Al-Sisi outlined a plan for the post-Morsi era that would include the temporary suspension of the constitution and the appointment of the Supreme Constitutional Court to manage affairs of state until a new presidential election is held.

The power and the mandate in Egypt


Mohamed Morsi is now out, and it is virtually impossible for him to pull off a personal comeback in the near future. His downfall is a result of his and the Muslim Brotherhood’s unsophisticated view of democracy in conjunction with their naïve assumption that they had real power. This combination proved to be a fatal mistake. They mistakenly assumed that once Morsi was elected by a majority of voters (not the majority of the people), he was given both the mandate and the power to rule. The truth of any democracy is that neither of these assumptions is automatically true.

Morsi’s failed mandate

Morsi was given his mandate by a narrow majority, and only of those voting — not the Egyptian people. His mandate was provisional. Many of those demonstrating in Tahrir Square and elsewhere did not vote. Certain activist groups withdrew from the process because they were afraid they would give legitimacy to the Muslim Brotherhood. Others voted for Morsi but were against the Muslim Brotherhood. Why would they vote for Morsi yet oppose the Brotherhood? Because the election was manipulated to be a vote between the Brotherhood represented by Morsi, and the military represented by Ahmed Shafiq. Many preferred even a Muslim Brotherhood activist to the military. Morsi’s mandate was short-lived because it became obvious to all who are not hard-core Muslim Brotherhood supporters that he was not interested in real democracy. Many of those who had voted for him last year publicly opposed him in recent days. The extraordinary number of demonstrators proved how disappointed the country was with his failure to govern properly.

Where lies the power in Egypt?

The Egyptian military proved without a shadow of a doubt where the power lies in Egypt. Morsi was deposed in five minutes after a 48-hour warning and without really firing a shot. This is a powerful message to the Egyptian people. The power lies with the Egyptian armed forces. If a political leader or party does not please the army, they will eventually be in trouble. Note the parallel, by the way, with Turkey until only recently — but that’s a different discussion.

The military

The military clearly has the power. At this moment, from the clear message of the current round of demonstrations, it also has the popular mandate. The question that needs to be considered most urgently is, what does the military want?

The military does not want to govern directly. It has experienced that, it did it badly, and it wanted out. That is why there were democratic elections. The army allowed elections and supported them.

The army wants Egypt to be functional. That is its bottom line. It does not care much about democracy. The culture of military life does not promote feelings of democracy. Armies can only function properly when officers give orders without discussion and debate. But whether the army is pro-democracy, anti-democracy, or simply a-democracy, it sees its major responsibility to defend the country from outsiders and not insiders. It does not want to deploy on the streets and fight against its own citizens.

The army does not want to govern, but it wants the country to be functional, and it is here where it can be influenced. Those forces or parties that seem most capable of running a functional country, while channeling to the army the resources that it considers its due, will get the support of the army.

The old regime

Mubarak was the person in authority, but he did not really have the power. When it became clear to the military that Mubarak was a liability, he was simply removed. He was no longer able to control the street, so he was eliminated. The military was loved for their act because it was seen as the salvation of Egypt and the source of a new hope for democracy. But remember that democracy is unimportant for the military. They can take it or leave it, as long as their position is protected and the country will be functional. It is certainly not functional now, but the military is the only institution at this point that has the time, patience and resources to work through the ups and downs and stay on top of the situation.

In the meantime, the entire bureaucracy of the Egyptian state was staffed with people who were loyal to Mubarak — who was loyal to the military. The military has always feared and hated the Muslim Brotherhood, so when Morsi took over the leadership of the Egyptian bureaucracy as president, his efforts at running the system were stonewalled. He failed on his own accord to work with anybody who was not Brotherhood, but he failed in the normal bureaucratic running of the country because he was set up to fail. 

The street

The biggest change that the Arab Spring brought to the Arab world is the lesson that the Arab people now, after centuries of lethargy and indifference, are willing to rise up against what they consider to be unacceptable governance. That has been a shock to everybody, including the military two years ago and the Muslim Brotherhood last week. Recall that the Brotherhood only joined the demonstrations when it saw that it had no choice. Brotherhood leaders realized that to hold back would have cost them a sense of legitimacy in Egyptian society. And last week, we saw that Morsi and the Brotherhood completely misread the willingness of the people to rise up in self-sacrifice yet again in order to improve their unhappy lives.

The inherent problem with “the street” is that it is such a big tent that it can only articulate general demands. It cannot deal with specifics. The specifics need to be worked out democratically, but Egypt has no real experience with the process of democracy. That is one of the reasons why Morsi failed. He failed to act like a mature and caring ruler. He failed to work with his opposition. He failed to find solutions through compromise. Like many other Egyptians, Morsi did not understand that once in power a leader still needs to continue to listen to the will of the people.

This, by the way, is a very important observation for those who have said that Egypt will be a democratic country only for the span of one election. Once the Muslim Brotherhood is democratically elected, they said, that will be the end of democracy. The street has proven otherwise, and all Egyptians now understand this. So does the army. It was the will and support of the people that enabled Morsi to sideline the army when he did so some months ago. It was the will of the people that gave the army the opportunity to assert itself once again this week. There is a lot of potential with the street (i.e., the will of the people), but it has to be measured fairly and managed effectively. The current process of calling out the masses for vague demands for change does neither, and so far, its success is only partial.

The military coup

The removal of Morsi was a military coup. Some people call it a revolution because it had the support of the street and probably a significant majority of the Egyptian people. But it was not a popular revolution, and what happened is not really a new phenomenon in Egypt. The “Free Officers Movement” that brought Nasser to power in the 1950s also had the vague support of the street. It was not a revolution either, and the result was a military dictatorship that has endured ever since. 

So we are now at a moment when the military, with the blessing of the majority of the Egyptian people, has actually put a brake on the democratic process. The process was flawed but was nevertheless an important movement in the right direction. The military is now the obvious power in Egypt and will remain so for the immediate future. It is working with various factions, but always with the same goal of remaining at the core of the system.

What has changed?

Actually a lot, in fact a sea change among the Egyptian people as a whole. An overwhelming majority of Egyptians — secular, religious, on the left and right of center as well as in the middle — want more freedom, support for diversity, more economic opportunity and an end to cronyism. They want equal opportunity and a fair chance to build their lives, and many are willing to fight and risk their lives to achieve it. On the other hand, they have not experienced true democracy and they have shown that they do not understand its processes. They have little experience dealing with the difficult life of political barter, and they have virtually no Egyptian role models aside from military or religious leadership, neither of which is particularly interested in democratic ideals. The Egyptian people need to develop their own version of democratic governance, and they are struggling with making that happen. We will see in the next months and years whether the will of the people will translate into a truly functional democracy.


Rabbi Reuven Firestone is professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and co-director of the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement at the University of California.

Morsi, army refuse to budge as deadline passes


Egypt's army commander and Islamist President Mohamed Morsi each pledged to die for his cause as a deadline neared on Wednesday that will trigger a military takeover backed by protesters.

Military chiefs, vowing to restore order in a country racked by demonstrations over Morsi's Islamist policies, issued a call to battle in a statement headlined “The Final Hours”. They said they were willing to shed blood against “terrorists and fools” after Morsi refused to give up his elected office.

The armed forces general command was holding a crisis meeting, a military source said, less than five hours before an ultimatum was due to expire for Morsi to either agree to share power or make way for an army-imposed solution.

In an emotional, rambling midnight television address, the president said he was democratically elected and would stay in office to uphold the constitutional order, declaring: “The price of preserving legitimacy is my life.”

Liberal opponents said it showed he had “lost his mind”.

The official spokesman of his Muslim Brotherhood movement said his supporters were willing to become martyrs to defend Morsi.

“There is only one thing we can do: we will stand in between the tanks and the president,” Gehad El-Haddad told Reuters at the movement's protest encampment in a Cairo suburb that houses many military installations and is near the presidential palace.

“We will not allow the will of the Egyptian people to be bullied again by the military machine.”

The state-run Al-Ahram newspaper said Morsi was expected to either step down or be removed from office and that the army would set up a three-member presidential council to be chaired by the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court.

A military source said he expected the army to first call political, social and economic figures and youth activists for talks on its draft roadmap for the country's future.

REVOLUTION SAVED?

A mass of revelers on Cairo's Tahrir Square feted the army overnight for, in their eyes, saving the revolutionary democracy won there two years ago when an uprising toppled autocratic President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

But Morsi's backers denounced the army's intervention as a “coup”. At least 16 people, mostly supporters of the president, were killed and about 200 wounded when gunmen opened fire on pro-Morsi demonstrators at Cairo University campus.

The Muslim Brotherhood accused uniformed police of the shooting. The Interior Ministry said it was investigating.

Central Cairo was quiet by day. Many stores were shuttered and traffic unusually light. The stock market index fell 1.7 percent on fears of bloodshed. The Egyptian pound weakened against the dollar at a currency auction, and banks said they would close early, before the army deadline.

Military sources earlier told Reuters the army had drafted a plan to sideline Morsi, suspend the constitution and dissolve the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament after the 5 p.m. (1500 GMT) deadline passes.

The opposition Dustour (constitution) party led former U.N. nuclear agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei appealed for military intervention to save Egyptian lives, saying Morsi's speech showed he had “lost his mind” and incited bloodshed.

The opposition National Salvation Front, an umbrella group of liberal, secular and leftist parties, and the “Tamarud – Rebel!” youth movement leading the street protests have both nominated ElBaradei to negotiate with army leaders on a post-Morsi transition.

Coordinated with political leaders, an interim council would rule pending changes to the Islamist-tinged constitution and new presidential elections, the military sources said.

They would not say what was planned for the uncooperative president, whose office refused to disclose his whereabouts.

“PEOPLE'S COUP”

In his 45-minute address to the nation, Morsi acknowledged having made mistakes and said he was still willing to form a national unity government ahead of parliamentary elections and let a new parliament amend the constitution.

But he offered no new initiative and rejected calls to step aside, saying it was his sacred duty to uphold legitimacy – a word he repeated dozens of times.

The president accused remnants of Mubarak's former regime and corrupt big money families of seeking to restore their privileges and lead the country into a dark tunnel.

Liberal opposition leaders, who have vowed not to negotiate with Morsi since the ultimatum was issued, immediately denounced his refusal to go as a declaration of “civil war”.

“We ask the army to protect the souls of Egyptians after Morsi lost his mind and incited bloodshed of Egyptians,” the Dustour Party said in a statement.

The youth movement that organized the mass protests urged the Republican Guard to arrest Morsi immediately and present him for trial.

“We ask the army to intervene to prevent the bloodshed of the Egyptian people,” Tamarud's founder Mahmoud Badr told a news conference. “This is a people's coup against a dictator and tyrant president and the army of the Egyptian people has to respond to the people's demands and act upon them.”

Reporting by Asma Alsharif, Alexander Dziadosz, Shaimaa Fayed, Maggie Fick, Alastair Macdonald, Shadia Nasralla, Tom Perry, Yasmine Saleh, Paul Taylor, Ahmed Tolba and Patrick Werr in Cairo, Abdelrahman Youssef in Alexandria, Yursi Mohamed in Ismailia and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Paul Taylor.

Recalling a second exodus


Frolicking with her fiancé in the cool waters of the Suez Canal, Lilian Abada would never have imagined she was about to experience the first of a string of events that would ultimately lead her to flee her native Egypt for Israel with only one suitcase.

When Abada and her future husband, Nisso, emerged from the water that day in 1956, a security agent was waiting for them. The two teenagers were arrested for spying for Israel and interrogated for days. They were released and then rearrested, along with hundreds of Jews. Finally, they fled to Israel.

“We realized the Egyptians wanted us out,” Abada said.

Abada’s account of her family’s flight is set to appear in “The Golden Age of the Jews From Egypt,” a forthcoming book that aims to preserve the memory of this North African Jewish community against what many Egyptian Jews see as an attempt by the country’s Islamist leaders to blot out their history.

The rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood last year has generated much angst in the Egyptian Jewish Diaspora, descendants of a 2,000-year-old community all but destroyed in a mass emigration in the two decades following Israel’s establishment in 1948 — a period that community members refer to as the “Second Exodus.”

In the wake of the election of Mohamed Morsi to the presidency last year, there were reports that Egypt had denied entry visas to Rabbi Avraham Dayan and several others who were due to travel to Alexandria to lead High Holy Days services at the city’s Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue. Services apparently will not be held there on the upcoming Passover holiday.

Jewish sources also say a nascent restoration project of some of Cairo’s crumbling synagogues has been suspended, despite the 2010 announcement by Egypt’s then-culture minister that the government would shoulder the cost of the project.

In January, a Muslim Brotherhood politician resigned as a presidential adviser after he drew international attention by calling on Egyptian Jews to return. More recently, authorities censored a film on Egyptian Jews that was to be screened in Egyptian cinemas, though the director, Amir Ramses, tweeted this week that the film will be screened later this month after producers “won the war against security forces.”

“It appears that under President Mohamed Morsi, Egyptian authorities are trying to tear out the pages about the Jewish minority from the book of Egyptian history,” said Ada Aharoni, the editor of “The Golden Age of the Jews From Egypt,” which serves as a kind of Egyptian Jewish haggadah.

A Cairo-born retired sociologist, writer and researcher at Haifa’s Technion, Aharoni initiated the book project, which is being prepared for print just as Jews around the world prepared to remember their own ancestors’ flight from Egypt on Passover. But the holiday was not Aharoni’s main consideration in terms of timing.

Living witnesses to the uprooting of Egyptian Jewry are dying out, she said. And the recent censorship of the documentary created an additional sense of urgency.

“This film claimed Jews had it good in Egypt and left only to America and France, not Israel — and still it was banned,” she said. “The Morsi regime is determined to delete our history in Egypt and our heritage. In a way, Morsi’s regime wants to return to periods even darker than the one that caused the Second Exodus.”

The 400-page book contains 68 testimonies and will be published in Israel in the coming weeks and sold in bookshops. Although most of it is written in Hebrew, some accounts appear only in French, a tribute to the sizable community of Egyptian Jews that settled in France.

According to Aharoni, only half of the 75,000 to 100,000 Jews who left Egypt settled in Israel. Many went to France, but also to the United States, the United Kingdom and even Brazil.

One of the non-Israelis featured in the book is Aharoni’s younger brother, Edwin Diday, who lives in Paris. In the days leading up to the family’s flight, Diday felt “the same fear that we felt during World War II, as the Nazi forces of Erwin Rommel neared Egypt,” he wrote in the book. Diday says anti-Semitic caricatures were “everywhere, one showing an arm tattooed with a Star of David holding a bloody red knife.”

On an outing to the Rio cinema, a local told Diday’s parents that a gang of hooligans was coming to lynch them.

“Mom and dad took us in their arms and ran with us home, which was fortunately not far,” Diday recalled.

But Diday has other memories of roaming alone as a boy in the Museum of Cairo. And Aharoni recalls her best friend, Kadreya, who was not Jewish, at Alvernia, an elite English-language school for girls situated in a well-to-do neighborhood of the Egyptian capital.

“People don’t realize it, they think of all North African Jews as one bloc,” Aharoni said. “But Egyptian Jewry lived in a European enclave in the heart of Cairo.”

According to Aharoni, part of the reason Jews were able to live in such an enclave was that 95 percent were not Egyptian citizens, despite having lived there for generations. The discrimination deprived them of equal rights, but also freed them from the duty of sending their children to Arab state schools, serving in the army or aligning themselves politically with any one party, Aharoni says.

To help bring the lost enclave back to life, the book features dozens of rare photographs of Egyptian Jewish life. One taken shortly before Aharoni left with her family in 1949 shows nine smiling teenagers from Maccabi Cairo, the local branch of the international Zionist sports organization. Its activities were banned a few months later, Aharoni says.

The book also contains a copy of Nissim Rabia’s 1948 Maccabi membership card with text in Arabic, Hebrew and French. Another reproduction shows the travel document Egyptian authorities gave Jewish families they expelled. Stamped on them were the words “One way — no right to return.”

Many pages in the book are dedicated to the property that Egypt’s well-to-do Jewish residents were forced to leave behind. Diday’s father, Nessim, mistakenly believed his life savings were secure at the Cairo branch of a Swiss bank; the government requisitioned the funds. Benny Roditti recalls how, just before leaving in 1956, he tried to withdraw his family’s savings from a different Cairo bank but was told the account had been “suspended indefinitely.”

Thousands had similar experiences, according to Aharoni.

In recent decades Azi Nagar, the founder of the Association for the Promotion of Compensation for Jewish Refugees from Arab Lands, tried to start restitution talks with the regime of Hosni Mubarak, whose 30 years in power ended in 2011 in a revolution that led to Morsi’s election. Nagar, an Israeli born in Cairo, also was keen to see Egypt honor its announcement that it would cover the costs of renovating the country’s synagogues.

Nowadays, Nagar says, Egypt’s tiny Jewish community cannot even get the government to approve renovations at the community’s expense.

In January, Nagar broached the issue of financial restitution in letters to Morsi, who has not replied.

Aharoni believes speaking about the loss and trauma suffered by Egyptian Jews is important but views restitution talks as a side issue.

“Yes, a staggering amount was left behind in Egypt,” she said. “But going after it is like asking a beggar for a handout.” 

Muslim Brotherhood tops Simon Wiesenthal Center anti-Semite list


Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood produced the worst anti-Semitic and anti-Israel slurs this year, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The Center topped its annual “Top Ten Anti-Semitic/Anti-Israel Slurs” list with a quote from Mohammed Badie, a Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader who lamented “Jewish control” and ”spreading of corruption on earth,” and recommended “holy Jihad” as a remedy.

Also quoted in the entry was Futouh Abd al-Nabi Mansour, a cleric affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood who called on Allah to “destroy the Jews and their supporters” in a sermon delivered in the presence of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in October.

Second on the list was the Iranian regime.

Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuf was third for a cartoon showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu squeezing votes into a ballot box out of the cadaver of a Palestinian child.

Soccer-related anti-Semitism occupied the fourth slot, followed by Ukraine’s Svoboda party, whose leader Oleg Tyagnibok assailed what he termed a “Muscovite Jewish Mafia.”

The sixth and seventh slots went to Greece’s Golden Dawn party and Hungary’s Jobbik, respectively. Norway and its royal house were in the eighth spot for awarding a medal to the Trond Ali Linstad, a Muslim educator and physician who has in his writings denounced the spread of “Jewish influence”. The medal was later withdrawn.

Number nine went to Jakob Augstein, a German publicist who in Der Spiegel accused Netanyahu of exploiting the “Jewish lobby” in the United States and Germany’s Nazi past to “keep the world on a leash.”

Louis Farrakhan occupied the last slot, and was quoted as saying in October: “Jews control the media.  They said it themselves… In Washington right next to the Holocaust museum is the Federal Reserve where they print the money.  Is that an accident?”

Egypt’s opposition protests draft constitution


Egypt's opposition said it would continue to protest an upcoming referendum on a draft constitution even after President Mohammed Morsi cancelled decrees that gave him virtually unlimited power.

Late Saturday night Morsi withdrew the decrees that gave him immunity from judicial oversight. But he continues to insist on going forward with the scheduled Dec. 15 referendum.

The opposition, led by the National Salvation Front, objects to the draft constitution in part because it would enshrine Islamic law.

Demonstrators have been protesting outside of the presidential palace, and the Cairo headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Morsi belongs, were set on fire.

A million man march demonstration opposing the draft constitution has been called for Tuesday.

Egyptian protesters penetrate barrier at Morsi’s palace


Egyptian protesters broke through a barbed wire barricade keeping them from the presidential palace in Cairo on Friday and some climbed onto army tanks and waved flags.

Up to 10,000 protesters had been penned behind the barrier, guarded by tanks that were deployed on Thursday after a night of violence between supporters and opponents of the Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, in which seven people were killed.

Demonstrators cut the barbed wire and hundreds swarmed through and surged up to the walls of the palace, some kissing the police and military guards surrounding it. “Peaceful, peaceful,” they chanted.

Troops of the Republican Guard, which had ordered rival demonstrators to leave the vicinity on Thursday, moved to the front gate to secure the main entrance to the palace.

Reporting by Yasmine Saleh; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Andrew Roche

Obama expresses deep concern to Egypt’s Morsi about violence


U.S. President Barack Obama called Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on Thursday to express his “deep concern” about the deaths and injuries of protesters in Egypt and said dialogue between opposing sides should be held without preconditions, the White House said.

“The president emphasized that all political leaders in Egypt should make clear to their supporters that violence is unacceptable,” the White House said in a statement.

“He welcomed President Morsi's call for a dialogue with the opposition, but stressed that such a dialogue should occur without preconditions. The president noted that the United States has also urged opposition leaders to join in this dialogue without preconditions.”

Morsi called on Thursday for a national dialogue after deadly clashes around his palace.

“(Obama) reiterated the United States' continued support for the Egyptian people and their transition to a democracy that respects the rights of all Egyptians,” the White House statement said. “The president underscored that it is essential for Egyptian leaders across the political spectrum to put aside their differences and come together to agree on a path that will move Egypt forward.”

Reporting by Jeff Mason, editing by Stacey Joyce

More demonstrations in Tahrir Square against Morsi power grab


Police fired tear gas and beat demonstrators as large-scale protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square continued over Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's power grab.

Many young protesters were arrested Wednesday on the second straight day of demonstrations in and near the square. On Tuesday, more than 200,000 people gathered at the site of demonstrations in February 2011 that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

At least one protester has died in this week's demonstrations.

Mass protests also are being held in other cities and are comparable in size to the uprising that turned Mubarak out of office, according to Reuters. The protests have expanded to decrying Morsi's Islamist Muslim Brotherhood Party as well.

Morsi announced on Nov. 22 a consolidation of power, including that Egyptian courts would not be permitted to overturn any laws or decrees he has issued since assuming the presidency in June — at least until a new constitution is presented and approved in about six months.

Morsi earned praise from the United States and the international community last week after Egypt brokered a cease-fire between Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza and Israel, ending more than a week of escalated warfare.

Protests after “Pharaoh” Morsi assumes powers in Egypt


Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's decision to assume sweeping powers caused fury amongst his opponents and prompted violent clashes in central Cairo and other cities on Friday.

Police fired tear gas near Cairo's Tahrir Square, heart of the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, where thousands demanded Morsi quit and accused him of launching a “coup”. There were violent protests in Alexandria, Port Said and Suez.

Opponents accused Morsi, who has issued a decree that puts his decisions above legal challenge until a new parliament is elected, of being the new Mubarak and hijacking the revolution.

“The people want to bring down the regime,” shouted protesters in Tahrir, echoing a chant used in the uprising that forced Mubarak to step down. “Get out, Morsi,” they chanted, along with “Mubarak tell Morsi, jail comes after the throne.”

Morsi's aides said the presidential decree was intended to speed up a protracted transition that has been hindered by legal obstacles but Morsi's rivals condemned him as an autocratic pharaoh who wanted to impose his Islamist vision on Egypt.

“I am for all Egyptians. I will not be biased against any son of Egypt,” Morsi said on a stage outside the presidential palace, adding that he was working for social and economic stability and the rotation of power.

“Opposition in Egypt does not worry me, but it has to be real and strong,” he said, seeking to placate his critics and telling Egyptians that he was committed to the revolution. “Go forward, always forward … to a new Egypt.”

Buoyed by accolades from around the world for mediating a truce between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip, Morsi on Thursday ordered that an Islamist-dominated assembly writing the new constitution could not be dissolved by legal challenges.

“Morsi a 'temporary' dictator,” was the headline in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Morsi, an Islamist whose roots are in the Muslim Brotherhood, also gave himself wide powers that allowed him to sack the unpopular general prosecutor and opened the door for a retrial for Mubarak and his aides.

The president's decree aimed to end the logjam and push Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation, more quickly along its democratic path, the presidential spokesman said.

“President Morsi said we must go out of the bottleneck without breaking the bottle,” Yasser Ali told Reuters.

TURBULENCE AND TURMOIL

The president's decree said any decrees he issued while no parliament sat could not be challenged, moves that consolidated his power but look set to polarize Egypt further, threatening more turbulence in a nation at the heart of the Arab Spring.

The turmoil has weighed heavily on Egypt's faltering economy that was thrown a lifeline this week when a preliminary deal was reached with the International Monetary Fund for a $4.8 billion loan. But it also means unpopular economic measures.

In Alexandria, north of Cairo, protesters ransacked an office of the Brotherhood's political party, burning books and chairs in the street. Supporters of Morsi and opponents clashed elsewhere in the city, leaving 12 injured.

A party building was also attacked by stone-throwing protesters in Port Said, and demonstrators in Suez threw petrol bombs that burned banners outside the party building.

Morsi's decree is bound to worry Western allies, particularly the United States, a generous benefactor to Egypt's army, which praised Egypt for its part in bringing Israelis and Palestinians to a ceasefire on Wednesday.

The West may become concerned about measures that, for example, undermine judicial independence. The European Union urged Morsi to respect the democratic process.

“We are very concerned about the possible huge ramifications of this declaration on human rights and the rule of law in Egypt,” Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay, said at the United Nations in Geneva.

The United States has been concerned about the fate of what was once a close ally under Mubarak, who preserved Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel. The Gaza deal has reassured Washington but the deepening polarization of the nation will be a worry.

“ANOTHER DICTATOR”

“The decree is basically a coup on state institutions and the rule of law that is likely to undermine the revolution and the transition to democracy,” said Mervat Ahmed, an independent activist in Tahrir protesting against the decree. “I worry Morsi will be another dictator like the one before him.”

Leading liberal Mohamed ElBaradei, who joined other politicians on Thursday night to demand the decree was withdrawn, wrote on his Twitter account that Morsi had “usurped all state powers and appointed himself Egypt's new pharaoh”.

Almost two years after Mubarak was toppled and about five months since Morsi took office, propelled to the post by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt has no permanent constitution, which must be in place before new parliamentary elections are held.

The last parliament, which sat for the first time earlier this year, was dissolved after a court declared it void. It was dominated by the Brotherhood's political party.

An assembly drawing up the constitution has yet to complete its work. Many liberals, Christians and others have walked out accusing the Islamists who dominate it of ignoring their voices over the extent that Islam should be enshrined in the new state.

Opponents call for the assembly to be scrapped and remade. Morsi's decree protects the existing one and extends the deadline for drafting a document by two months, pushing it back to February, further delaying a new parliamentary election.

Explaining the rationale behind the moves, the presidential spokesman said: “This means ending the period of constitutional instability to arrive at a state with a written constitution, an elected president and parliament.”

“THIS IS NOT THE REMEDY”

Analyst Seif El Din Abdel Fatah said the decree targeted the judiciary which had reversed, for example, an earlier Morsi decision to remove the prosecutor.

Morsi, who is now protected by his new decree from judicial reversals, said the judiciary contained honorable men but said he would uncover corrupt elements. He also said he would ensure independence for the judicial, executive and legislative powers.

Although many of Morsi's opponents also opposed the sacked prosecutor, whom they blamed for shortcomings in prosecuting Mubarak and his aides, and also want judicial reform, they say a draconian presidential decree was not the way to do it.

“There was a disease but this is not the remedy,” said Hassan Nafaa, a liberal-minded political science professor and activist at Cairo University.

Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva and Sebastian Moffett in Brussels; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Peter Millership and Giles Elgood

Israel hits Hamas government buildings, reservists mobilized


Israeli aircraft bombed Hamas government buildings in Gaza on Saturday, including the prime minister's office, after Israel's cabinet authorized the mobilization of up to 75,000 reservists in preparation for a possible ground invasion.

Palestinian militants in Gaza kept up cross-border salvoes, firing a rocket at Israel's biggest city Tel Aviv for the third straight day. Police said it was destroyed in mid-air by an Iron Dome anti-missile battery deployed hours earlier, and no one was injured.

Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, said Israeli missiles wrecked the office building of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh – where he had met on Friday with the Egyptian prime minister – and struck a police headquarters.

In the Israeli Mediterranean port of Ashdod, a rocket ripped into several balconies. Police said five people were hurt.

With Israeli tanks and artillery positioned along the Gaza border and no end in sight to hostilities now in their fourth day, Tunisia's foreign minister travelled to the enclave in a show of Arab solidarity.

Officials in Gaza said 41 Palestinians, nearly half of them civilians including eight children and a pregnant woman, had been killed since Israel began its air strikes. Three Israeli civilians were killed by a rocket on Thursday.

In Cairo, a presidential source said Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi would hold four-way talks with the Qatari emir, the prime minister of Turkey and Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal in the Egyptian capital on Saturday to discuss the Gaza crisis.

Egypt has been working to reinstate calm between Israel and Hamas after an informal ceasefire brokered by Cairo unraveled over the past few weeks. Meshaal, who lives in exile, has already held a round of talks with Egyptian security officials.

Israel uncorked its massive air campaign on Wednesday with the declared goal of deterring Hamas from launching rockets that have plagued its southern communities for years. The salvoes recently intensified, and are now displaying greater range.

The operation has drawn Western support for what U.S. and European leaders have called Israel's right to self-defense, along with appeals to both sides to avoid civilian casualties.

Hamas, shunned by the West over its refusal to recognize Israel, says its cross-border attacks have come in response to Israeli strikes against Palestinian fighters in Gaza.

“We have not limited ourselves in means or in time,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Israel's Channel One television. “We hope that it will end as soon as possible, but that will be only after all the objectives have been achieved.”

Hamas says it is committed to continued confrontation with Israel and is eager not to seem any less resolute than smaller, more radical groups that have emerged in Gaza in recent years.

The Islamist movement has ruled Gaza since 2007. Israel pulled settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but maintains a blockade of the tiny, densely populated coastal territory.

RESERVE TROOP QUOTA DOUBLED

At a late night session on Friday, Israel's cabinet decided to more than double the current reserve troop quota set for the Gaza offensive to 75,000, political sources said.

The move did not necessarily mean all would be called up or that an invasion would follow. Tanks and self-propelled guns were seen near the sandy border zone on Saturday, and around 16,000 reservists have already been summoned to active duty.

The Gaza conflagration has stirred the pot of a Middle East already boiling from two years of Arab revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to spread beyond its borders.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to visit Israel and Egypt next week to push for an end to the fighting in Gaza, U.N. diplomats said on Friday.

Hamas's armed wing claimed responsibility for Saturday's rocket attack on Tel Aviv, saying it had fired a longer-range, Iranian-designed Fajr-5 at the coastal metropolis, some 70 km (43 miles) north of the Gaza Strip.

After air raid sirens sounded, witnesses saw two white plumes rise into the sky over the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv and heard an explosion when the incoming rocket was hit.

The anti-missile battery had been due to take delivery of its fifth Iron Dome battery early next year but it was rushed into service near Tel Aviv after rockets were launched toward the city on Thursday and Friday. Those attacks caused no damage or casualties.

In Jerusalem, targeted by a Palestinian rocket on Friday for the first time in 42 years, there was little outward sign on the Jewish Sabbath that the attack had any impact on the usually placid pace of life in the holy city.

In Gaza, some families abandoned their homes – some of them damaged and others situated near potential Israeli targets – and packed into the houses of friends and relatives.

ISRAEL'S GAZA TARGETS

The Israeli army said it had zeroed in on a number of government buildings during the night, including Haniyeh's office, the Hamas Interior Ministry and a police compound.

Taher al-Nono, a spokesman for the Hamas government, held a news conference near the rubble of the prime minister's office and pledged: “We will declare victory from here.”

A three-storey house belonging to Hamas official Abu Hassan Salah was also hit and totally destroyed early on Saturday. Rescuers said at least 30 people were pulled from the rubble.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama commended Egypt's efforts to help defuse the Gaza violence in a call to Morsi on Friday, the White House said in a statement, and underscored his hope of restoring stability there.

On Friday, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil paid a high-profile visit to Gaza, denouncing what he called Israeli aggression and saying Cairo was prepared to mediate a truce.

Egypt's Islamist government, freely elected after U.S.-backed autocrat Hosni Mubarak fell to a popular uprising last year, is allied with Hamas but Cairo is also party to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

In a call to Netanyahu, Obama discussed options for “de-escalating” the situation, the White House said, adding that the president “reiterated U.S. support for Israel's right to defend itself, and expressed regret over the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives”.

Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The last Gaza war, involving a three-week long Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-09, killed over 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis died.

But few believe Israeli military action can snuff out militant rocket fire entirely without a reoccupation of Gaza, an option all but ruled out because it would risk major casualties and an international outcry.

While Hamas rejects the Jewish state's existence, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in areas of the nearby West Bank, does recognize Israel but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Israel, Gaza fighting rages on as Egypt seeks truce


Israel bombed militant targets in Gaza for a fifth straight day on Sunday, launching aerial and naval attacks as its military prepared for a possible ground invasion, though Egypt saw “some indications” of a truce ahead.

Forty-seven Palestinians, about half of them civilians, including 12 children, have been killed in Israel's raids, Palestinian officials said. More than 500 rockets fired from Gaza have hit Israel, killing three people and injuring dozens.

Israel unleashed its massive air campaign on Wednesday, killing a leading militant of the Hamas Islamist group that controls Gaza and rejects Israel's existence, with the declared goal of deterring gunmen in the coastal enclave from launching rockets that have plagued its southern communities for years.

The Jewish state has since launched more than 950 air strikes on the coastal Palestinian territory, targeting weaponry and flattening militant homes and headquarters.

The raids continued past midnight on Sunday, with warships bombarding targets from the sea. And an air raid targeted a building in Gaza City housing the offices of local Arab media, wounding three journalists from al Quds television, a station Israel sees as pro-Hamas, witnesses said.

Two other predawn attacks on houses in the Jebalya refugee camp killed one child and wounded 12 other people, medical officials said.

These attacks followed a defiant statement by Hamas military spokesman Abu Ubaida, who told a televised news conference.

“This round of confrontation will not be the last against the Zionist enemy and it is only the beginning.”

The masked gunman dressed in military fatigues insisted that despite Israel's blows Hamas “is still strong enough to destroy the enemy.”

An Israeli attack on Saturday destroyed the house of a Hamas commander near the Egyptian border.

Casualties there were averted however, because Israel had fired non-exploding missiles at the building beforehand from a drone, which the militant's family understood as a warning to flee, and thus their lives were spared, witnesses said.

Israeli aircraft also bombed Hamas government buildings in Gaza on Saturday, including the offices of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and a police headquarters.

Among those killed in air strikes on Gaza on Saturday were at least four suspected militants riding motorcycles, and several civilians including a 30-year-old woman.

ISRAELI SCHOOLS SHUT

Israel said it would keep schools in its southern region shut on Sunday as a precaution to avoid casualties from rocket strikes reaching as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the past few days.

Israel's “Iron Dome” missile interceptor system destroyed in mid-air a rocket fired by Gaza militants at Tel Aviv on Saturday, where volleyball games on the beach front came to an abrupt halt as air-raid sirens sounded.

Hamas' armed wing claimed responsibility for the attack on Tel Aviv, the third against the city since Wednesday. It said it had fired an Iranian-designed Fajr-5 at the coastal metropolis, some 70 km (43 miles) north of Gaza.

In the Israeli Mediterranean port of Ashdod, a rocket ripped into several balconies. Police said five people were hurt.

Israel's operation has drawn Western support for what U.S. and European leaders have called Israel's right to self-defense, but there was also a growing number of calls from world leaders to seek an end to the violence.

British Prime Minister David Cameron “expressed concern over the risk of the conflict escalating further and the danger of further civilian casualties on both sides,” in a conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a spokesperson for Cameron said.

The United Kingdom was “putting pressure on both sides to de-escalate,” the spokesman said, adding that Cameron had urged Netanyahu “to do everything possible to bring the conflict to an end.”

Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama, said the United States would like to see the conflict resolved through “de-escalation” and diplomacy, but also believes Israel has a right to self-defense.

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi said in Cairo as his security deputies sought to broker a truce with Hamas leaders, that “there are some indications that there is a possibility of a ceasefire soon, but we do not yet have firm guarantees.”

Egypt has mediated previous ceasefire deals between Israel and Hamas, the latest of which unraveled with recent violence.

A Palestinian official told Reuters the truce discussions would continue in Cairo on Sunday, saying “there is hope,” but it was too early to say whether the efforts would succeed.

In Jerusalem, an Israeli official declined to comment on the negotiations. Military commanders said Israel was prepared to fight on to achieve a goal of halting rocket fire from Gaza, which has plagued Israeli towns since late 2000, when failed peace talks led to the outbreak of a Palestinian uprising.

Diplomats at the United Nations said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to visit Israel and Egypt in the coming week to push for an end to the fighting.

POSSIBLE GROUND OFFENSIVE

Israel, though, with tanks and artillery positioned along the frontier, signaled it was still weighing a possible ground offensive into Gaza.

Israeli cabinet ministers decided on Friday to more than double the current reserve troop quota set for the Gaza offensive to 75,000 and around 16,000 reservists have already been called up.

Asked by reporters whether a ground operation was possible, Major-General Tal Russo, commander of the Israeli forces on the Gaza frontier, said: “Definitely.”

“We have a plan. … It will take time. We need to have patience. It won't be a day or two,” he added.

Another senior commander briefing reporters on condition of anonymity said Israel had scored “good achievements” in striking at nearly 1,000 targets, with the aim of ridding Hamas of firepower imported from Libya, Sudan and Iran.

A possible move into the densely populated Gaza Strip and the risk of major casualties it brings would be a significant gamble for Netanyahu, favorite to win a January national election.

Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The last Gaza war, involving a three-week Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year's period of 2008-09, killed over 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis died in the conflict.

But the Gaza conflagration has stirred the pot of a Middle East already boiling from two years of Arab revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to spread beyond its borders.

One major change has been the election of an Islamist government in Cairo that is allied with Hamas, potentially narrowing Israel's maneuvering room in confronting the Palestinian group. Israel and Egypt made peace in 1979.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Todd Eastham