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.
Interim Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, reportedly favors talks with the Muslim Brotherhood to end the crisis.
Mr. Morsi was ousted by the military July 3 after four days of protests with millions of Egyptians taking to the streets against his administration. The protesters accused Mr. Morsi of monopolizing power and looking out only for the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Since Mr. Morsi's ouster, at least 140 people, a majority the former president's supporters, have been killed in clashes with security forces.
Despite the bloodshed, the protesters have no intention of packing up.
"The sit-ins will continue until [Mr. Morsi] is restored [as president] and constitutional legitimacy is restored. Only then can we talk about what to do next," Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad said.
Time for soccer
Tens of thousands of protesters, including women and children, have transformed the two Cairo squares into tent cities, where life carries on as close to normal as possible. Earlier this week, protesters from the two sites squared off in a soccer game.
"The danger [for the Muslim Brotherhood] is that [calling off the sit-ins] will be an admission of defeat," Mr. Sabry said. "Staying in the streets is the biggest card [the Muslim Brotherhood has] to ensure they don't end up being persecuted and have a strong hand in any negotiations."
Mr. Morsi has been detained at a secret location since his ouster. On Monday, an Egyptian judge extended his detention by 15 days. He has been accused of conspiring with the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas to break out of prison two days after his arrest in 2011 during the uprising that toppled his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.
Other senior Islamist leaders have been arrested or face arrest warrants on charges of inciting violence.
Credibility at stake
The Muslim Brotherhood also risks losing face among its supporters if it backs down.
"If, having stood on the argument for law and order ... they say, 'The coup is legitimate. We were wrong. We're going home' — then not only they will they be under the threat of arrest and liquidation, they would have also lost all their ideological legitimacy," said Jonathan Brown, an associate professor of Islam and Muslim-Christian understanding at Georgetown University.
"Having exposed so much of their network, their activities and their capabilities to the light of day, they are now even more vulnerable than they were before the protests that ousted Mubarak. So they really are going to be in a position of potentially complete elimination," he added at a forum hosted by the Middle East Institute in Washington last week.
The Muslim Brotherhood was banned in Egypt 1954, but it emerged on the national stage after Mr. Mubarak was ousted on Feb. 11, 2011, following pro-democracy protests. After initially saying it would not participate in the presidential elections, the Muslim Brotherhood went on to field Mr. Morsi as its candidate for president last year.
International diplomatic efforts have failed to break the impasse between the military-backed government and the Brotherhood. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina all have tried to negotiate a settlement.
Hard-liners in the so-called June 30 camp, named for the day the anti-Morsi uprising started, and in the Muslim Brotherhood are seen as the stumbling blocks to any deal that would lead Egypt out of the political crisis.
Any deal could be a long time coming.
"Revolutions like this have a tendency to play out over a period of several years," said Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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