CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian authorities on Monday postponed plans to disperse two Cairo protest camps demanding the return of ousted President Mohammed Morsi after thousands of his supporters reinforced the sit-ins when news leaked to the press, military and security officials said.
Officials said they wanted to “avoid bloodshed,” and the delay is likely to temporarily ease tensions that had spiked overnight, with the country bracing for a new bout of violence if the police move against protesters. However, the country remains on edge as to how the standoff between the military-backed government and the protesters will end.
A judge meanwhile ordered that the deposed president, detained since his July 3 ouster, should be held for 15 more days pending investigations into charges he conspired in 2011 with Palestinian militants, an official said.
The postponement announcement came as Morsi supporters held new rallies demanding his return to power, marching down a main boulevard at the heart of Cairo chanting anti-military slogans and waving the toppled president’s picture.
Tens of thousands have occupied two encampments in Cairo’s streets since even before Morsi’s July 3 overthrow. At least 130 of his supporters have been killed in two major clashes on the edges of the larger encampment.
An Egyptian security official, speaking anonymously as he was not authorized to talk to reporters, said the postponement came after a plan to end the sit-ins by setting up cordons was leaked Sunday to the media. Thousands poured overnight into the sit-ins to prevent such a takeover.
“We were stunned by the masses” who came to the camps, one military official told The Associated Press. A push into the sit-ins would trigger a “massacre,” he said.
A second security official said however that leaking the news served to “uncover the Brotherhood’s reaction to security forces’ advances,” referring to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group.
The security forces had planned to form cordons around the Cairo protest sites as early as dawn Monday, giving a chance for protesters to leave while preventing others from getting in, so as to minimize casualties before the a push with water cannons and tear gas, according to officials who spoke earlier to The Associated Press.
The government’s decision to clear the sit-ins came after the failure of nearly two weeks of efforts by the international community to end the standoff and find a peaceful resolution. Egypt’s interim prime minister warned just ahead of the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday that ended Sunday that the government’s decision to clear the sit-ins was “irreversible.”
Officials have said that Egypt’s Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate, has been pushing to extend negotiations and has threatened to resign in case of excessive use of force.
Morsi was deposed after millions of Egyptians took to the streets on June 30, demanding he step down over what they saw as his failure to govern inclusively and failure to manage the economy. Many accused him of acting only on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood. Huge protests continued for four days.
The Brotherhood has responded that the ouster of Morsi, the winner of Egypt’s first freely contested presidential elections, was a blow to legitimacy. They demand he be reinstated.
The two sides have not been able to reach a compromise.
On Monday, influential Brotherhood member Mohammed el-Beltagy said he turned down an offer by the head of Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s top religious institution, to negotiate a solution.
El-Beltagy said that top Al-Azhar cleric Ahmed el-Tayyib was not an impartial mediator because he backed the coup.
Another Brotherhood figure, Saad Emara, dismissed all efforts to negotiate a solution, saying the Brotherhood doesn’t recognize the “initiatives from the post-coup era.”
“The key to a resolution is the return of legitimate institutions, including the president,” Emara said.
Morsi has not been seen since the military deposed him, disbanded the Islamist-dominated parliament and suspended the constitution. He is held incommunicado, along with some of his aides, while several top Brotherhood leaders and their Islamist allies are detained on charges of instigating deadly violence.
On Monday, a judge ordered Morsi to be detained for 15 more days, as investigations continue into charges that he conspired with Palestinian militants during the country’s 2011 uprising, according to a judicial official.
Judge Hassan Samir is investigating whether Morsi colluded with Hamas to break out of the Wadi al-Natroun prison west of Cairo along with 33 other members of the Brotherhood. This is the second time his detention has been renewed. The first was on July 26.
Other Brotherhood figures, including the group’s top spiritual guide Mohammed Badie, are on the run or taking refuge amid tens of thousands of supporters at the larger of the two sit-ins in Cairo’s eastern Nasr City district
There, a road intersection facing Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque has been turned to a heavily fortified tent city. On Monday, men with helmets, sticks, and what appeared to be athletic protective gear took turns manning barricades made of sandbags, truck tires and bricks.
The government says the Rabaah protest camp, along with another sit-in across the Nile River near Cairo University, are a “threat to national security.”
The protests by the Brotherhood have prevented an air of normalcy from returning to Cairo’s streets after nearly a month of instability.
Rights groups have published testimony of cases in which anti-Morsi protesters and others are said to have been tortured by Morsi supporters, and authorities say bodies bearing what appear to be marks of torture have been found nearby. Neighbors have long complained of harassment, restrictions on their movement and fears of getting caught in a crossfire if clashes take place.
Sectarian violence meanwhile has flared in southern Egypt, and insurgents have battled the military in the Sinai, with Morsi’s removal appearing to have lifted the lid on Islamic militancy in various parts across the country.
“The country is at a standstill,” said Abdel-Rahman al-Bagi, part of a group of anti-Morsi protesters that has remained camped out at Cairo’s Tahrir Square since his overthrow. “Nothing is functioning because of the Muslim Brotherhood.”