CAIRO — Facing unrelenting pressure from Muslim Brotherhood protesters, Egypt’s military chief sought to justify his decision to remove Mohammed Morsi from office, saying Sunday in a televised speech that the Islamist leader had violated his popular mandate and antagonized state institutions.
The comments by General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi — his first since the president’s ouster nearly two weeks ago — came as the designated interim prime minister pushed ahead with talks to form a new Cabinet this week.
Reform advocate Mohamed ElBaradei was sworn in as Egypt’s interim vice president for international relations on Sunday.
The move reinforces the role of liberals in the new leadership who are strongly opposed to the Brotherhood.
Several secular-minded candidates also have been approached to lead the foreign, finance, culture, and information ministries, among others. Nabil Fahmy, who served as Egypt’s former ambassador to the United States for over a decade under Hosni Mubarak, was tapped to be foreign minister, according to state media.
Continuing the country’s crackdown on the Brotherhood leadership, Egypt’s new chief prosecutor ordered frozen the assets of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie and at least 13 other senior members of the group pending investigations into deadly violence outside the organization’s headquarters in Cairo and the Republic Guard forces club.
The United States sent its No. 2 diplomat in the State Department, William Burns, to Cairo to meet with interim government officials as well as with civil society and business leaders during his two-day visit. Burns is the first high-level American official to visit since Morsi’s ouster.
‘The armed forces sincerely accepted the choice of the people, but then political decision-making began stumbling.’ — Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Egyptian general
Many in the international community fear the ouster of Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, would undermine Egypt’s transition to democracy.
The State Department said Burns would underscore US support for the Egyptian people and a transition leading to an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government. The United States has called for Morsi’s release. Since his ouster, Morsi has been held incommunicado at an undisclosed location.
Sissi said the armed forces acted to remove Morsi on July 3 according to the will of the people as the country was sliding toward deeper polarization and more violence. The Islamist leader was the country’s first democratically chosen leader after a narrow victory in elections last year.
‘‘The armed forces sincerely accepted the choice of the people, but then political decision-making began stumbling,’’ Sissi said. ‘‘The armed forces remained committed to what it considered the legitimacy of the ballot box, even though that very legitimacy began to do as it pleased and in a way that contradicted the basis and the origin of this legitimacy.’’
Morsi’s election came after months of turmoil following the 2011 revolution that removed autocratic leader Mubarak from office, in a rocky transition that was marred by persistent protests, political disagreements, and an economy teetering on bankruptcy.
His supporters say the military staged a coup in a bid to undermine the rising influence of Islamists, and thousands have camped out for days near a mosque in eastern Cairo to demand he be reinstated.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which propelled Morsi to power, has called for massive protests Monday to escalate pressure on the military. Some Muslim Brotherhood leaders have called for Sissi to be removed and put on trial, accusing him of treason.
Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el-Haddad responded to Sissi’s remarks, saying that the military had no right to act on behalf of the people of Egypt except through ‘‘orders of their elected commander in chief,’’ meaning Morsi. In comments posted on Twitter, he said the military also has no right to decide which protest is worthy enough to represent the people.
Morsi was ousted by the military after four days of protests by millions of his opponents.
Sissi said Morsi ‘‘entered into a conflict with the judiciary, the media, the police, and the public opinion. Then [he] also entered into a conflict with the armed forces.’’ He did not elaborate on the nature of the conflict with the military, but said that comments about the military offended ‘‘and were considered a stab to the national pride.’’
Sissi, speaking to an auditorium filled with military officers, said the armed forces could no longer stand on the sidelines as millions of Egyptians took to the streets to call for the Islamist leader to step down over allegations he was abusing his power.
The exact mandate for ElBaradei, a 71-year-old Nobel Peace Prize recipient, was not clear. The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog based in Vienna, returned home to assume a role in the anti-Mubarak uprising and became one of the most visible leaders in the badly fractured liberal and secular opposition to Morsi’s government.
Designated prime minister Hazem el-Beblawi met with a number of candidates for his new Cabinet, which is expected to be announced on Wednesday.
Others expected on the roster are Mohammed Mukhtar Gomaa — who works in the office of the head of the top learning institute in the Muslim Sunni world, Al-Azhar University — as head of the religious endowment ministry. Gomaa, who also heads the faculty of Islamic and Arabic studies at Al-Azhar, was seen as a nod to moderate Islam.