Egypt's political crisis entered a tense phase after EU and US mediation efforts collapsed and the army-installed government repeated its threat to take action against supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi.
Both sides called their supporters on to the streets on Thursday (8 August), while Morsi supporters in two protest camps in Cairo strengthened sandbag-and-brick barricades in readiness for any action by security forces.
Acting President Adli Mansour, in a message on the eve of the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday, said Egypt was in critical circumstances. The interim government would press on with its own plan to hold new elections in nine months, he said.
"The train of the future has departed, and everyone must realise the moment and catch up with it, and whoever fails to realise this moment must take responsibility for their decision," he said.
European Union envoy Bernardino Léon stayed on in the capital in the slim hope of reviving the effort, while his American counterpart, William Burns, headed home after days of trying to broker a compromise between the government and Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.
But Brussels and Washington said they were very concerned that the Egyptian parties had not found a way to break what they called a dangerous stalemate.
EU, US express concern
"This remains a very fragile situation, which holds not only the risk of more bloodshed and polarisation in Egypt, but also impedes the economic recovery, which is so essential for Egypt's successful transition," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a joint statement with US Secretary of State John Kerry.
The army ousted the Islamist Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected leader, on 3 July after huge street demonstrations against his rule.
Morsi and leaders of his Muslim Brotherhood have been rounded up and detained. But thousands of their supporters have demonstrated to demand his reinstatement.
Nearly 300 people have been killed in political violence since the overthrow, including 80 Morsi supporters shot dead by security forces on July 27.
Mansour has blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the breakdown of the international mediation effort, and for any violence that might result, while interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi accused protestors of inciting violence and he warned that any further violence would be met "with utmost force and decisiveness."
Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad, asked about the threat, told Reuters: "This means they are preparing for an even bigger massacre. They should be sending us positive signals, not live bullets."
Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans, who has visited Cairo as the crisis unfolded, said he saw the confrontation worsening. "More people will turn to the streets to protest and the tendency in the armed forces to repress that will mount," he told the Reuters news agency. "So I think there's a need to be worried about the next days and weeks."
In a joint statement on Wednesday (7 August), EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a joint statement with US Secretary of State John Kerry said:
“While further violent confrontations have thus far been avoided, we remain concerned and troubled that government and opposition leaders have not yet found a way to break a dangerous stalemate and agree to implement tangible confidence building measures. The Egyptian government bears a special responsibility to begin this process to ensure the safety and welfare of its citizens. This remains a very fragile situation, which holds not only the risk of more bloodshed and polarization in Egypt, but also impedes the economic recovery which is so essential for Egypt’s successful transition. Now is not the time to assess blame, but to take steps that can help initiate a dialogue and move the transition forward.
“We remain ready to help in any way that we can. As the holy feast of Eid al-Fitr approaches, this is a moment for leadership, vision, and magnanimity – a unifying moment when Egyptians should look ahead at what is at risk and what they have to gain through genuine reconciliation. These are choices which only Egyptians can make, and there is nothing neat or easy about any of them. But if they can make those hard but positive choices, Egyptians will find determined partners in Europe and America.”
Mohamed Morsi's downfall was driven by fears he was trying to establish an Islamist autocracy, coupled with a failure to ease economic hardships afflicting most of Egypt's 84 million people.
The army says it was acting at the behest of the people and has lain out its own transition plan for new elections, a move rejected by the Brotherhood.
Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist who finished third in last year's presidential election, said the Islamists were in a state of denial about what had happened.
Egypt is the Arab world's largest country, a bulwark in the United States' Middle East policy, and maintains an uneasy peace with Israel.
- US Department of State: Joint Statement by Secretary of State Kerry and EU High Representative Ashton