American diplomat: U.S. not taking sides in Egypt

Jul 15, 2013, 6:42 PM EDT
This image released by the office of the Egyptian Presidency shows U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, center, meeting with Egypt's interim President Adly Mansour, right, as U.S. ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson listens in, second left, at the presidential palace in Cairo, Monday, July 15, 2013.
(AP Photo/Egyptian Presidency)

CAIRO (AP) — The most senior U.S. official to visit Egypt since its elected president was ousted said Monday that Washington is committed to helping the Arab country succeed in its "second chance" at democracy, adding this can only happen with the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns' meetings with Egypt's interim leaders came as thousands of supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi held another mass rally to demand his return to office. The protest turned violent as police fired tear gas at pro-Morsi protesters who burned tires, threw rocks and blocked traffic flow on a main roadway running through the heart of the capital.

The remarks by Burns, the No. 2 American diplomat, signaled that Washington, while calling for an inclusive transition, is moving on from Morsi and his Brotherhood group.

Burns insisted that the United States is not taking sides in deeply polarized Egypt, saying it is not Washington's policy, "as outsiders, to support particular political personalities and particular parties."

"What we're going to continue to try to do is to support an open inclusive, tolerant democratic process," Burns said. "We hope it will be a chance to learn some of the lessons and correct some of the mistakes of the last two years."

Burns' comments were being carefully watched in Cairo, where a cross-spectrum of groups have accused Washington of meddling in the country's affairs.

Morsi's opponents have long accused the United States of backing the Islamist president during his year in office, particularly after he helped broker a cease-fire between neighboring Israel and the Hamas rulers in the Palestinian Gaza Strip. Tamarod, the main activist group that organized the protests against Morsi, said it refused an invitation to meet with Burns because of the perceived U.S. stance.

On the other side, Morsi's supporters, including the Brotherhood, now accuse Washington of backing the July 3 coup against Egypt's first freely elected president. A Brotherhood spokesman said he was not aware of any invitation for the group to meet with the U.S. diplomat during his visit.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki would not comment on whether Tamarod or the Brotherhood had been invited to meet Burns.

Burns held talks Monday with Egypt's interim President Adly Mansour, Prime Minister-designate Hazem el-Beblawi and the head of the military, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, concerning the transition plan put forward by the new leadership. The road map calls for the amending of the Islamist-drafted constitution approved in a referendum under Morsi and then parliamentary and presidential elections early next year.

In carefully-worded remarks after the meetings, Burns said Washington is "firmly committed to helping Egypt succeed in this second chance" to realize the promises of creating a democratic state, but added that he did not come to Cairo "with American solutions" or "to lecture anyone."

"We know that Egyptians must forge their own path to democracy. We know that this will not mirror our own, and we will not try to impose our model on Egypt," he said.

Burns told reporters that the process, particularly the constitutional changes, should be "transparent and inclusive" and that no party should be excluded — a clear call for the Brotherhood to be involved.

"If representatives of some of the largest parties in Egypt are detained or excluded, how are dialogue and participation possible?" Burns asked, referring to the Brotherhood.

So far, the Brotherhood has staunchly rejected participating in the new political process, saying it will not validate what it calls the illegal ouster of Morsi. The group has questioned the new leadership's calls for dialogue even as authorities launch a crackdown against the Brotherhood's leadership, putting Morsi and five others in detention and issuing arrest warrants against others. Morsi has been kept at an undisclosed location, but no formal charges have been filed.

In a main Cairo intersection, thousands have been holding a sit-in to protest Morsi's ouster by the military following days of mass protests by millions opposed to his handling of the country during his year in office.

The interim leadership says it wants to offer the Brotherhood's political party posts in the Cabinet it is putting together, but the group has refused.

Former Brotherhood lawmaker, Saad Emara, said senior military officials reached out to Mohammed Ali Bishr, a senior Brotherhood official and former minister in the last Morsi government who declined talks with the armed forces.

"They tried to contact him. He said clearly he will not talk about anything except restoring matters to how they were, not post-coup arrangements," Emara said.

The military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali denied that military officers had been in touch with the Brotherhood's leadership, saying the allegations were part of a smear campaign against the armed forces "to realize cheap political gains."

"The doctrine of the military doesn't work in the dark as a methodology. If we have any such contacts we will announce it before," he wrote in a post on his official Facebook page.

The Brotherhood posted a statement in the form of a letter addressing the head of Egypt's military on Monday, suggesting he had committed treason for leading a coup against the president. The letter was made public after el-Sissi sought to justify his decision to remove Morsi, saying the deposed president had violated his popular mandate and antagonized state institutions while in office.

Marches by Morsi's supporters to denounce the military have disrupted Cairo's traffic, but have largely been peaceful since violence peaked a week ago when more than 50 Brotherhood supporters were killed in clashes with the military.

Meanwhile, Burns said he had called on the military to "avoid any politically-motivated arrests."

The military did not comment on talks with Burns beyond saying in a statement that the U.S. official and el-Sissi discussed "the recent political developments in Egypt ... and ways to reinforce cooperation."

Burns, the No. 2 American diplomat, is also expected to meet with civil society groups and business leaders during his two-day trip.

The activist group Tamarod explained on its Facebook page sarcastically that it turned down an invitation to meet Burns because of perceived U.S. support for the Brotherhood over the past year.

"What is your business with Egypt? Stick with the Brotherhood and show me what good they are (to you)," one of Tamarod's founders, Mahmoud Badr, said in a posting.

Emara, of the Brotherhood, said any talks with U.S. officials would have to recognize the group's demand for Morsi's reinstatement — not about a post-Morsi political process.

In a sign of how anti-U.S. tone has sharpened, the editor in chief of the main state newspaper Al-Ahram called the United States "the Great Satan" and denounced American "meddling" in Egypt. The paper has hewed closely to the military since Morsi's ouster.

"I will not feel liberated so long as the American flag flaps in Egypt skies, and as long as US meddling in Egypt's most intimate affairs continues," Abdel-Nasser Salama wrote in the editorial Friday.

At a rally of Morsi supporters in Cairo, the deputy leader of the Brotherhood's political party, Essam el-Erian told the crowd that Obama pressured Morsi to offer concessions to the protesters or a military coup will be inevitable.

Burns told reporters he was aware of the negative perception many Egyptians had toward Washington's policies.

"I am not nave. I know that many Egyptians have doubts about the United States, and I know there will be nothing neat or easy about the road ahead," he said.