Morsi loyalists clash with security forces as US envoy visits

CAIRO: Hundreds of Islamists loyal to deposed president Mohamed Morsi clashed Monday with security forces as they rallied for his return, after a US envoy urged Egypt’s army-backed leaders to end violence.

The demonstrators cut off the October 6 bridge across the Nile in the heart of Cairo, before the security forces fired tear gas to drive them back, an AFP correspondent reported.

The pro-Morsi protesters, who had turned out in their thousands after the Ramadan iftar meal to demand his return, responded by hurling rocks at the security forces, who again dispersed them by firing tear gas.

The clashes, the first in the Egyptian capital since dozens of pro-Morsi demonstrators were shot dead outside an elite military headquarters a week ago, ended after about 10 minutes.

Hours earlier, Under Secretary of State Bill Burns urged the country’s divided factions to engage in dialogue and end violence, on the first visit to Egypt by a senior US official since the military toppled Morsi in a popularly backed coup on July 3.

“The first priority must be to end violence and incitement, prevent retribution, and begin a serious and substantive dialogue among all sides and all political parties,” Burns said.

He was speaking after meeting the general behind the coup, army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as well as the military-appointed president Adly Mansour and interim premier Hazem al-Beblawi.

Egypt’s new leaders are pushing ahead with a transition plan for an interim government and fresh elections, but Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood defiantly insists on his reinstatement.

A State Department spokeswoman confirmed Burns did not meet with any Brotherhood officials, while Tamarod, the movement that spearheaded the grassroots campaign against Morsi, said it rejected an invitation to meet the US envoy.

“We rejected the invitation… because the United States did not stand with the Egyptian people from the beginning,” Islam Hammam, one of the group’s organisers, told AFP.

Burns’ brief visit comes as the authorities tighten the screws on Morsi’s backers, freezing the assets of 14 top Islamists, and with Egypt rocked by a wave of deadly attacks, notably in the Sinai.

Three factory workers were killed in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in the restive peninsula, medics said.

Coptic Christians have also been killed in the Sinai, including a priest, as part of a what an Egyptian rights group said was a string of sectarian violence around the country since the Islamist president’s overthrow.

In Paris, UN chief Ban Ki-moon warned against “revenge” and “retribution,”and denounced the arrests of Brotherhood officials.

International concern is mounting over the fate of Morsi, who has been in custody since the coup and was quizzed by prosecutors on Sunday over complaints of possible criminal offences.

Washington has refrained from saying he was the victim of a coup, which would legally require a freeze on some $1.5 billion in desperately needed US military and economic assistance to Cairo.

Burns declined to comment on Morsi, but reiterated Washington’s call for the army to halt its arbitrary arrests of Brotherhood members.

“We’ve called on the military to avoid any politically motivated arrests,”he said.

Morsi’s supporters say his overthrow was an affront to democracy.

Hundreds of them held protests in central Cairo, blocking the October 6 bridge, one of the city’s main arteries, before they clashed with the security forces.

The road was later opened, and there were no reported casualties.

Earlier, tens of thousands of pro-Morsi protesters gathered outside Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, where they have been rallying for the past two weeks demanding his reinstatement.

Egypt’s military-appointed leadership has been trying to install a new cabinet that would oversee the transition to parliamentary and presidential elections.

Interim premier Beblawi is expected to unveil his full cabinet on Tuesday or Wednesday. His priorities include restoring security and preparing for the elections, which the interim president has said could be held by early next year.

Burns said Washington hope that Egypt would swiftly return to a democratically-elected civilian government.

“What is most important is that the process be transparent and inclusive,”he added.

Brotherhood officials have vowed to continue “peaceful” protests until the reinstatement of Morsi, who interim leaders say is being held in a “safe place, for his own safety”.

“We have a noble goal, a just cause, for which we are prepared to sacrifice,” Brotherhood spokesman Ahmed Aref told AFP.

During his single year of turbulent rule, Morsi was accused of concentrating power in Brotherhood hands, sending the economy into freefall and failing to protect minorities.