After violence, Egypt opposition presses Morsi

AP News
Posted: Apr 08, 2013 4:22 PM
After violence, Egypt opposition presses Morsi

CAIRO (AP) — After Egypt's worst sectarian violence in months left seven dead the past two days, Egypt's leading opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei on Monday called on the Islamist president to make serious concessions to bring the opposition into decision-making, saying national reconciliation is the only way out of the country's myriad problems.

The violence, capped by an unprecedented mob attack on the main cathedral of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church, raised new alarm over the escalating turmoil in the country, which has been polarized over the administration of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and Islamists' political power.

The opposition has blamed months of unrest on attempts by Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, from which he hails, to monopolize power, accusing them of squeezing out other voices and failing to find consensus on major national issues, such as the controversial, Islamist-backed constitution passed in a December referendum.

Morsi supporters say he has repeatedly invited all parties into dialogue in the past and have accused the opposition of fueling street unrest to undermine the Islamists' election victories, including that of Morsi.

Morsi denounced Sunday's violence at the Cathedral, saying he considered any attack on the cathedral as an attack against him personally. He also ordered an immediate investigation into the violence and spoke with the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II.

The Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, depicted the attack as a new part of the attempts to create chaos and destabilize Morsi.

On Monday, the party's secretary-general, Hussein Ibrahim, wrote on his Facebook page comments that whoever thinks that "igniting sectarian violence can bring down a ruling regime is mistaken. The fire of sedition if ignited in Egypt, God forbid, will burn all."

He too called for a serious dialogue, not by "staking out positions through satellite TV."

Senior opposition figure ElBaradei said Monday that the opposition is not ready to enter a dialogue with Morsi for show and that it first wants moves to indicate he is serious in seeking to heal rifts by meeting long-held opposition demands.

He said Morsi should appoint a new government, not packed with Islamists but instead based on merits and able to oversee upcoming parliamentary elections independently.

He said the opposition also demands an independent committee write the law governing the election without giving advantage to the Brotherhood, the country's most organized political force.

ElBaradei also said that a court order that annulled a Morsi decree appointing the country's top prosecutor must be respected and a new prosecutor installed to heal rifts in the judiciary and ensure trust in an independent prosecution.

Then, he said, the two sides could hold a dialogue on bigger national issues. "We are waiting for Morsi to understand that without national reconciliation, Egypt will not rise," ElBaradei told a gathering of opposition figures in a conference designed to offer solutions to Egypt's teetering economy.

"The state today is collapsing. It is a collapsing state politically, economically, socially and security-wise," said ElBaradei. "And I don't think we have long to fix this."

Attempts to seek comments from the presidency on ElBaradei's call were not immediately successful.

Despite an earlier round of talks between ElBaradei and members of the Brotherhood's party, the presidency has dismissed demands for appointing a new government and has so far stayed out of the dispute over the prosecutor. An election law is currently being reworked in the Shura Council, Egypt's current legislative body, which is dominated by Islamists.

The Muslim-Christian clashes that claimed the lives of seven since Friday were the country's deadliest sectarian violence since Morsi came to office in June. It began with sectarian violence in Khosoos, a town just north of Cairo, in which four Christians and a Muslim were killed.

Clashes erupted at the cathedral in Cairo — the seat of the Coptic pope — on Sunday during the funeral of the slain Christians.

During the funeral service, mourners chanted against Morsi, calling on him to step down. Witnesses say a street brawl broke out when Coptic activists tried to stop traffic to stage an anti-government march.

A mob, described by witnesses as residents of the area, pelted the Christians with rocks and firebombs and fired birdshot at them, forcing them back into the cathedral complex. The mob outside and the Christians barricaded inside then exchanged rocks and firebombs for hours into the night Sunday.

Many of the Christians denounced what they called a lack of protection for the funeral. When police did arrive in greater numbers, they fired tear gas, and gas canisters landed inside church grounds caused a panic among women and children, while people outside the church cheered. Some firebombs thrown from near the church landed at a nearby gas station, while witnesses said some in the church lobbed firebombs at the crowd outside.

Two people died during these clashes, one identified as a Christian. Police said they have arrested four implicated in the violence, but didn't provide details.

The pope was not in the cathedral at the time of the siege.

It is the second religious institution in Egypt to come under recent attack from civilians, with little police intervention. Last week, students from al-Azhar University stormed the offices of the grand sheik of al-Azhar, head of the country's most eminent Muslim institution, demanding he be held accountable for food poisoning at a dormitory that left hundreds of students hospitalized.

Hamdeen Sabahi, another leading opposition figure who came in third in Egypt's first presidential elections after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, said the attacks on the cathedral and al-Azhar are attempts by some "to spread fear and darkness." He spoke at the same conference as ElBaradei.

The U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell, speaking to reporters in Washington, called for restraint on all sides, welcoming Morsi's promise to investigate the violence.

"We think it's very important for them to expeditiously investigate all acts of violence regardless of the situation in which it came about."

Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt's estimated 84 million people. Copts have complained for decades that the Christian minority suffers from discrimination, and recurrent localized violence over issues of building houses of worship or inter-religious love stories that ignite Muslim-Christian tension.

But attacks against Christians have increased since the ouster two years ago of autocrat Mubarak, including more attacks on houses of worships and at times brief evacuations of a whole population of Christians from their villages. Christians have also increasingly worried about their freedom of worship and belief with Islamists increasingly empowered in Egypt's politics.

In a sign of the anger in the community over the siege of the cathedral, considered the symbol of the Coptic Church, a Christian activist group, the Maspero Youth Union, called on Morsi to step down, accusing him of spreading division and failing to run the country.

"Has the contempt for the sanctity of the dead and the contempt for Copts reached this level?" it said in a statement said.