Saturday 18 November 2017

EU envoy allowed to meet Egypt's deposed president Mursi

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Egypt's rulers allowed an EU envoy to meet deposed President Mohamed Mursi, the first time an outsider was given access to him since the army overthrew him and jailed him a month ago.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton revealed little about what she called a "friendly, open and very frank" two-hour conversation with Mursi, after she was flown to an undisclosed location to visit him. An aide said they had "in-depth" talks but any negotiations involving him have been ruled out.

"I've tried to make sure that his family know he is well," said Ashton, who has emerged as one of the only figures accepted by both sides as a potential mediator in a conflict that has plunged the most populous Arab state into violent confrontation.

Ashton said Mursi had access to television and was informed about the situation in the country. Nearly 300 people have been killed in violence since Mursi was removed on July 3, including 80 of his supporters gunned down at dawn on Saturday.

The violence has raised global anxiety about Egypt as the authorities crackdown on the Brotherhood, a movement which emerged from decades in the shadows to win power in elections after Egypt's 2011 Arab Spring uprising against Hosni Mubarak.

Raising the prospect of more bloodshed, the Brotherhood has said it would hold marches again on Tuesday, though twice this week it has failed to follow through on pledges to march to sensitive security facilities in Cairo.

Ashton said the EU mediation effort would continue and she would return.

"Any violence must stop. The people need to come together to find the road to the future together. Only an inclusive process will work," said Ashton, speaking alongside interim Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei at a news conference.

Asked if Mursi could be part of a future process of negotiations and reconciliation, ElBaradei, part of the army-backed interim government, said: "No."

"I think there is a new road map. Mr Mursi failed, but the Brotherhood very much continue to be part of the political process and we would like them to continue to be part of the political process."

ElBaradei linked a start to dialogue to a halt to violence, which the government blames on its foes.

"Once we contain the violence that is taking place, then there will be room for a peaceful way to disband the demonstrations in different parts of the country and go into a serious dialogue," he said, referring to pro-Mursi sit-ins.

The Brotherhood accuses the security forces of being behind the violence to justify their crackdown on it.

Media have speculated about why the military-backed rulers would have allowed Ashton to meet the ousted leader who had been kept incommunicado for a month. She denied carrying an offer to Mursi, who faces charges including murder, of "safe exit" if he were to renounce his claim to the presidency.

ARMY-BACKED ROADMAP

Many people have suggested such an arrangement could be part of a deal that would allow Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood to leave the streets and join an army-backed "road map" to civilian rule, but would require Mursi to abandon his historic mandate as Egypt's first freely-elected leader.

Ashton said she would not attempt to characterise Mursi's positions, which no one has heard since he was overthrown.

"I also told him in my two-hour conversation that I was not going to represent his views because in the circumstances he cannot correct me if I do it wrongly," she said.

The army-backed roadmap envisions parliamentary elections in about six months to be followed by presidential polls. Accusing the army of mounting a coup, the Brotherhood says it wants nothing to do with it. The army said it acted in response to June 30 mass protests against Mursi's rule.

Meeting Mursi was a condition of Ashton's offer to visit Egypt, where she also met with the general who removed him and other top leaders on her second trip in 12 days.

"I said I wouldn't come unless I could see him (Mursi)," said Ashton, who has emerged this year as the main international envoy in Egypt where the traditional Western ally, the United States, is regarded with extreme suspicion by both sides.

Since the fall of Mubarak as the Arab Spring revolutions took hold more than two years ago, the Arab world's most populous nation has remained in turmoil, arousing concern amongst allies in the West and in neighbouring Israel, with which Egypt has had a peace treaty since 1979.

FLOWN BY HELICOPTER

Ashton was flown in a military helicopter to her meeting with Mursi and said she did not know where it took place.

"I saw where he was. I don't know where he is but I saw the facilities he has," said Ashton.

Egypt's authorities say Mursi is being investigated on accusations including murder, stemming from a 2011 jailbreak when he escaped detention during protests against Mubarak.

The Brotherhood says the accusations, including conspiring with the Palestinian group Hamas, are absurd and trumped up to justify his detention. He has not been officially charged.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called on Tuesday for Mursi to be released. Washington and other Western capitals have made similar calls.

"France calls for the rejection of violence and for the release of political prisoners including former president Mursi," Fabius said.

Ashton spent Monday shuttling between Egypt's rulers and the Brotherhood to try to pull the country back from more bloodshed.

Foreign countries are urging the military-backed rulers to reach compromise with Mursi's Brotherhood to avert further bloodshed, calls that gained urgency after Saturday's killings.

The government has ordered the Brotherhood to abandon a vigil it has maintained with thousands of supporters camping out to demand Mursi's return. The Brotherhood says it will not leave the streets unless Mursi is restored.

Asked if she had urged authorities not to clear the vigil, Ashton said she had called on all sides to avert violence.

"What we said to everyone is you need to find a calm resolution to the situation on the ground. We've been talking to everyone about the squares and what's happening there. We've made it clear that there is no place for violence in this."

The White House, treading a fine line with a pivotal Arab ally that it funds with $1.3 billion a year in military aid, said on Monday it "strongly condemns" Saturday's bloodshed, and urged respect for the right to peaceful protest.

"Violence not only further sets back the process of reconciliation and democratisation in Egypt, but it will negatively impact regional stability," spokesman Josh Earnest said.

Ashton met General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the army and the man who overthrew Egypt's first freely-elected president. She also held talks with members of the interim government installed by the army, and with representatives of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood's political wing.

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