More than a month after the military ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s new rulers are vexed by this question: How do you get tens of thousands of Mr. Morsi’s supporters off the streets of Cairo?
A military crackdown risks bloodshed and harsh international criticism; a retreat by Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood would damage the Islamists’ credibility among their supporters.
Egyptian authorities this week shelved plans to disperse two sit-ins by Mr. Morsi’s supporters in Cairo after their preparations were leaked to the media.
Security forces had intended to lay siege to the protest sites around Cairo’s Raba’a al Adawiya mosque and at al-Nahda Square near Cairo University. The size of the protests swelled in anticipation of a crackdown, raising alarm about a possible massacre.
Any attempt to forcibly end the sit-ins could have resulted in “a pretty horrific death toll,” said Heba Morayef, Cairo-based Egypt director of Human Rights Watch.
“We know that the police are pretty much incapable of dealing with protests that grow violent,” she said.
“The likelihood is that the police will respond with excessive force, and there will be a very quick escalation from tear gas to rubber bullets and ultimately live gunfire.”
The high density of the protesters at the mosque increases the likelihood of a deadly stampede, even if police were to use only tear gas.
On Tuesday, police fired tear gas at a pro-Morsi crowd that was marching toward government buildings in central Cairo to protest the appointment of 20 new provincial governors, including seven from the military. The Islamist governors appointed by Mr. Morsi while he was in office have all been removed.
‘Tug of war’
A military-backed interim administrations is pushing ahead with the transition to a new government largely excluding the Muslim Brotherhood. Interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi has warned that his government’s decision to break up the pro-Morsi sit-ins is irreversible.
“However, the fact that the sit-in dispersal hasn’t happened yet shows that somewhere within the system there is reluctance to disperse the sit-ins forcibly,” Ms. Morayef said Monday evening.
“At the same time, we are at the point where you either reach a political resolution or you disperse [the sit-ins] forcibly. It doesn’t really seem that there are halfway measures on the table at this point.”
A “tug of war” is taking place between the dovish camp and hawkish camp within the interim government over how to deal with the sit-ins, said Bassem Sabry, a Cairo-based political commentator.
“There is a realization inside the government that practically and logistically it would be almost impossible to break the sit-in … or at least there is a better realization of what a tumultuous aftermath that would lead to,” he said.