Egypt’s interim rulers issued a faster than expected timetable for elections to try to drag the country out of crisis, a day after 51 people were killed when troops fired on a crowd supporting ousted President Mohamed Mursi.
The streets of Cairo were quiet on Tuesday but Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement called for more protests later in the day, raising the risk of further violence.
Under pressure to restore democracy quickly, Adli Mansour, the judge named head of state by the army when it brought down Mursi last week, decreed overnight that a parliamentary vote would be held in about six months. That would be followed by a presidential election.
In an important positive signal for the transitional authorities, the ultra-orthodox Islamist Nour Party said it would accept ex-finance minister Samir Radwan as prime minister, potentially paving the way for an interim cabinet.
The stakes were raised dramatically by the bloodshed on Monday, the worst since Mursi was toppled by the military. The army opened fire outside Cairo’s Republican Guard barracks where the deposed leader is believed to be held.
The bloodshed has also raised alarm among key donors such as the United States and the European Union, as well as in Israel, with which Egypt has had a U.S.-backed peace treaty since 1979.
Officials said troops fired in response to an attack by armed assailants. The protesters disputed that account, insisting they were conducting peaceful dawn prayers.
“They shot us with teargas, birdshot, rubber bullets – everything. Then they used live bullets,” said Abdelaziz Abdel Shakua, a bearded 30-year-old who was wounded in his right leg.
EGYPT SHOCKED AND TIRED
The bloodshed shocked Egyptians, already tired of the turbulence that began 2-1/2 years ago with the overthrow of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising. However, many Egyptians seemed to accept the official account that the troops had come under attack and had fired back.
“Of course I condemn this: Egyptian versus Egyptian. But the people attacked the army, not the other way around,” said Abdullah Abdel Rayal, 58, shopping in a street market in downtown Cairo on Tuesday morning.
Winning the support of Nour for a new prime minister would be an important step to show that violence has not derailed the transition. Nour is the main Islamist group apart from Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood, and the authorities aim to show their transitional arrangement is acceptable to Islamists.
Radwan emerged as favourite to lead a government after Nour rejected Mohamed ElBaradei, a former U.N. diplomat and secularist politician.
A high level delegation from the United Arab Emirates was due to arrive in Egypt, signalling vital regional support for the military-led transitional rulers and potentially bringing a lifeline of billions of dollars in desperately-needed aid.
TURMOIL HITS TOURISM, INVESTMENT
With turmoil driving away foreign investors and tourists, Egypt is running dangerously short of cash to provide the subsidised bread and fuel that its 84 million people rely on.
Egyptian newspapers, mainly controlled by the state or by Mursi’s opponents, described Monday’s violence as the result of terrorism by Mursi’s supporters.
Millions of people took to the streets on June 30 to demand Mursi’s resignation, fearing he was orchestrating a creeping Islamist takeover of the state.
To the Brotherhood, his removal amounted to the reversal of democracy a year after he became Egypt’s first freely elected leader. Islamists fear a return to the suppression they endured for decades under autocratic rulers like Mubarak.
Protesters said Monday’s shooting started as they performed morning prayers outside the barracks. Military spokesman Ahmed Ali said that at 4 a.m. (0200 GMT) armed men attacked troops in the area in the northeast of the city. Emergency services said in addition to the dead 435 people were wounded.
At a hospital near Cairo’s Rabaa Adawiya mosque, where many of the wounded and dead were taken, rooms were crammed full, sheets were stained with blood.
On Friday, clashes between pro- and anti-Mursi supporters had swept across Egyptian cities, killing 35 people.
Mansour decreed that Egypt will hold new parliamentary elections once amendments to its suspended constitution are approved in a referendum.
In what appeared to be an olive branch to Islamists, the decree included controversial language put into the constitution last year that defined the principles of Islamic sharia law.
Whether that will be enough to lure back Nour, which had supported the military-led transition but pulled out of the talks after Monday’s attack, remains to be seen.
Egypt’s main share index rose after Nour said it would accept Radwan as prime minister.
Nour spokesman Nader Bakkar said Radwan met its conditions: “We asked for a technocrat economist … a neutral guy.”
Nathan Brown, a leading expert on Egypt’s constitution at George Washington University in Washington, said that while the overnight decree laid out a clear sequence for transition, it repeated some mistakes made two years ago, after Mubarak.
“It was drawn up by an anonymous committee; it was issued by executive fiat; the timetable is rushed; the provisions for consultation are vague; and it promises inclusiveness but gives no clear procedural guidelines for it,” he told Reuters.
Although Tuesday was comparatively quiet, there were minor incidents reported by late morning. Gunmen fired on a church in Port Said at the mouth of the Suez Canal overnight. Two people were wounded, medical sources said.
The Brotherhood movement has refused to have anything to do with the process, and thousands of supporters have camped out in northeast Cairo for the last five days and vowed not to budge until Mursi returns as president – a seemingly vain hope.
The arrival of a senior UAE delegation, led by Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed, could signal a welcome windfall.
The UAE – long sceptical of the Brotherhood – had pledged billions in aid to Egypt after the fall of Mubarak but held the money back during Mursi’s year in power. Saudi Arabia could also send much-needed cash and fuel.
The West has had a harder time formulating a public response, after years of pushing Arab leaders towards democracy while at the same time nervous about the Brotherhood’s rise. Demonstrators on both sides in Egypt have chanted anti-American slogans, accusing Washington of backing their enemies.
Washington has refrained from calling the military intervention a “coup” – a label that under U.S. law would require it to halt aid. It called on Egypt’s army to exercise “maximum restraint” but has said it is not about to halt funding for Egypt, including the $1.3 billion it gives the military.
The army has insisted that the overthrow was not a coup and that it was enforcing the “will of the people” after millions took to the streets on June 30 to call for Mursi’s resignation.