By Paul Taylor
CAIRO, April 7 The European Union's foreign
policy chief met Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi on Sunday
against a backdrop of sectarian violence to encourage feuding
political leaders to seek a national consensus in tackling
"This is a critical time for Egypt's transition. The country
is facing huge economic and political challenges," Catherine
Ashton said before the talks.
Highlighting political and sectarian tensions, clashes broke
out between Coptic Christians and Muslims outside Cairo's main
cathedral on Sunday after a funeral service for four Copts
killed in an exchange of gunfire with Muslims north of the
capital on Friday night. One Muslim was killed in that incident.
Egypt is in the midst of long-delayed negotiations with the
International Monetary Fund on a $4.8 billion loan needed to
cope with a growing economic crisis.
Foreign currency reserves have dwindled to less than three
months' imports, the Egyptian pound has lost nearly 10 percent
against the dollar this year and there are warnings of power
cuts and fuel shortages this summer.
"More than ever, Europe - as a partner and neighbor - has to
support Egypt in its move towards deep and inclusive democracy.
I will work hard in Cairo to engage with all parties to help
build confidence and find common ground on both political and
economic issues," Ashton said.
She was due to meet six main opposition leaders later but EU
diplomats said the prospect of a dialogue between the Muslim
Brotherhood-led government and its liberal and leftist opponents
had dimmed after recent political violence.
BATTLE OVER PROSECUTOR
The opposition accuses Mursi of seeking to monopolize power
and muzzle independent media and civil society using the public
prosecutor, the security forces and a controversial draft law to
regulate non-government organizations.
Mursi's supporters say the opposition is trying to undermine
his legitimacy and encouraging violence by refusing dialogue,
threatening to boycott parliamentary elections and broadcasting
Police fired tear gas on Saturday to disperse activists of
the April 6 pro-democracy movement that helped topple former
President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, after they tried to storm the
high court in a protest of the prosecutor general.
Egypt's top judicial body urged Prosecutor General Talaat
Ibrahim, appointed by Mursi last year, to resign voluntarily for
the sake of the unity of the judiciary and return to his former
job as a judge. An appeals court has annulled his appointment
and ordered for his predecessor's reinstatement.
The prosecutor's removal has been a key demand of liberals,
leftists and civil rights campaigners, who accuse him of bias by
targeting independent media, opposition activists and critics of
Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement, such as popular
television satirist Bassem Youssef.
The United States, which gives Egypt about $1.5 billion in
annual aid, directed its sharpest criticism so far at the
Islamist-led authorities last week, citing a "disturbing trend
of growing restrictions on freedom of expression."
The European Parliament, in a non-binding resolution, urged
the EU in March "not to grant any budgetary support to the
Egyptian authorities if no major progress is made regarding
respect for human rights and freedoms, democratic governance and
the rule of law."
The resolution particularly criticized the treatment of
Copts and women.
EU officials have said that if Egypt reaches a deal with the
IMF, it can expect an additional $500 million in financial
support from the EU and a similar amount from the United States.