CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s army-installed government said on Sunday it would give mediation a chance to resolve the crisis brought on by the overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, but warned that time was limited.
At the same time, a Cairo court announced that the leader of Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood and two other top officials will face trial in three weeks’ time for crimes including incitement to murder during protests in the days before he was toppled.
That could complicate efforts by international envoys and Egyptian factions to launch a political process, encourage national reconciliation and avert further bloodshed.
An imminent battle between security forces and thousands of Mursi supporters standing their ground in two protest camps in Cairo appeared less likely while the mediators talked.
The National Defence Council, made up of civilians and soldiers, said in a statement it backed mediation “that protects the rights of citizens regardless of their affiliations and that spares blood, as long as that happens in a defined and limited time.”
It did not specify a deadline.
The statement was issued one day after U.S. and European envoys met separately with members of the new government and allies of Mursi.
The crisis has led Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, to its most dangerous days since a popular uprising in February 2011 ended U.S.-backed strongman Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule and raised hopes of a new era of democracy.
Mursi became Egypt’s first freely elected leader in June 2012. But fears that he was tightening an Islamist grip on the country and his failure to ease the economic hardships afflicting most of its 84 million people led to huge street demonstrations, culminating in the army ousting him on July 3.
The military has laid out a “road map” to elections in about six months and promises a return to civilian government. The Brotherhood, an Islamist movement that spent decades in the shadows during Mubarak’s rule, had spurned the road map.
Almost 300 people have been killed in political violence since Mursi’s overthrow, including 80 shot dead by security forces in a single incident on July 27, and much of the Brotherhood’s leadership is in custody.
A Cairo court said on Sunday it would start the trial of Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie and his deputy Khairat el-Shater on August 25 on charges of inciting killings during the protests in the last days of Mursi’s rule.
The general prosecutor also ordered the pre-trial detention for 15 days of Rifaa El-Tahtawy, Mursi’s former chief of staff, and his deputy, accused of inciting the detention, torture and interrogation of protesters in 2012.
Mursi’s allies view them as political detainees who should be included in talks to ease tensions. Mursi, who has also been accused of murder and other crimes, is detained at an undisclosed location.
Diplomats say the Brotherhood and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, understand that Mursi will not return as president but they want a face-saving legal formula for him to step down.
Analysts say civilians in the new government are trying to promote a political solution despite resistance from security services that want to take a hard line on the Brotherhood.
A spokesman for the Mursi camp told Reuters on Saturday it wanted a solution that would “respect all popular desires,” an apparent recognition of the strength of the popular protests against his one-year rule.
But Mursi’s allies also told envoys from the United States and the European Union that they rejected any role in a political settlement for army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led Mursi’s overthrow.
Asked whether the delegation had insisted on Mursi’s reinstatement as part of any political deal, Tarek El-Malt, a member of the Brotherhood-affiliated Wasat party, said that was a detail for future discussion.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and European Union envoy Bernadino Leon, who are leading the diplomatic push, met Sisi on Sunday, an army statement said. It gave no details.
The United Arab Emirates, which has given the new government $3 billion in support, is also involved in the mediation, sending Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed to Cairo. Qatar, which is close to the Brotherhood, is also involved.
The Egyptian government denied a report by the Doha-based Al Jazeera news station that the envoys were going to meet Shater, the Brotherhood’s top political strategist.
In the United States, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham said the Egyptian military must move “more aggressively” to hold elections and future U.S. aid will hinge upon a return to civilian rule.
U.S. President Barack Obama has asked Graham and Senator John McCain to travel to Egypt to meet members of the new government and the opposition.
“The military can’t keep running the country. We need democratic elections,” Graham said in a CNN interview.
Washington has been grappling with how to respond to the situation in Egypt, for decades an important ally in its Middle East policy and recipient of billions of dollars in military aid over the years.
“I want to keep the aid flowing to Egypt, but it has to be with the understanding that Egypt is going to march toward democracy, not toward a military dictatorship. And that’s the message we’re going to send,” Graham said.
Additional reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Stacey Joyce