CAIRO — The Egyptian police appeared Monday to have postponed once again their threat to begin choking off two Cairo sit-ins where tens of thousands have gathered to protest the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, leaving in place a tense six-week-old standoff.
The new military-appointed government has promised for more than a week to use all necessary force to clear out the sit-ins, which were established by Morsi’s Islamist allies in the Muslim Brotherhood upon his ouster nearly six weeks ago. But until now, a combination of external pressure from Western powers and internal dissent from liberal Cabinet ministers had appeared to persuade General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the officer who ordered the takeover, to hold off decisive action.
As the sun rose over the main sit-in site on Monday, a small group of Morsi supporters who had gathered by makeshift barricades breathed a sigh of relief, resting on a sandpile in bicycle helmets with a few crude clubs at the ready.
Interior Ministry officials said Sunday night that they would begin clearing out the sit-ins as early as dawn. Human rights advocates said that could lead to the loss of dozens of lives, in part because, they say, because the Egyptian police are incapable of a gradual escalation — especially if they meet any friction or resistance.
“If the Egyptian police managed to intervene using responsible, proportionate force, it would be the first time,” said Karim Medhat Ennarah, a criminal justice researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “I don’t think they have the capacity to do that,” he said, adding that the police killed at least 140 Morsi supporters in mass shootings at smaller demonstrations in the weeks since his ouster.
Congressional leaders and Western diplomats have said such a bloody crackdown would provoke a cutoff of the $1.3 billion in annual US military assistance to Egypt. Diplomats say it could also block a $4.8 billion loan package from the International Monetary Fund that the new government calls essential to turning around the economy.
Rights advocates also warn that the use of force could increase the chance that Morsi’s Islamist supporters around the country would turn to violence in retaliation. The new government has detained many of his top allies on apparently politicized criminal charges, stirring Islamist fears of a return to the old police state.
Interior Ministry officials said Sunday that they would move in slowly, gradually surrounding the sit-ins to cut off any shipments of food and water. The officials said they would eventually block any entrance but leave one exit open so that demonstrators could leave at will.
After that, the ministry officials said, the police will gradually step up the use of nonlethal tactics, including tear gas and water cannons. But it was unclear whether the police intended to escalate their pressure over a matter of hours, days, or weeks.
How the police would handle resistance was another question, especially with both sides on edge after the recent deadly clashes. The demonstrators have already erected barricades and stored piles of rocks to throw at attackers. Government officials have accused the Islamists of stockpiling weapons, although both sit-ins appear to be overwhelmingly peaceful.
Brotherhood leaders said Sunday that their demonstrations would remain nonviolent even if the police moved in. Gehad el-Haddad, a Brotherhood spokesman, all but dared them to try. “If they try to disperse the sit-ins by force, we will just create a new sit-in, or multiple sit-ins,” he said. “It is the people who make the sit-ins, not the sit-ins that make the cause.”
Brotherhood officials have indicated a willingness to negotiate compromises that could include Morsi’s swift replacement and a handover of power to others. But Amr Darrag, a Brotherhood leader involved in talks with Western diplomats, insisted that as a starting point, Morsi, who has been detained in an undisclosed location since his ouster, should be released and reinstated at least temporarily, to give the handover legal legitimacy. Western diplomats said the release of imprisoned Brotherhood leaders could also reassure the Islamists of fair treatment in the future.
But officials of the interim government say that Morsi can never be reinstated, not even for a moment, and that his detention or release is now a matter for the courts to decide. Morsi is under investigation over crimes related to his escape from political imprisonment during the revolution that ended the rule of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.