Egypt army chief calls for quick transition to election

Reuters

* First pro-Mursi protest in Tahrir Square since July

* Army chief who ousted him calls for quick transition

* EU's Ashton to press for reconciliation with Brotherhood

By Maggie Fick

CAIRO, Oct 1 (Reuters) - Egypt's army chief called onTuesday for a quick transition to elections in order to restorestability to the country, while supporters of the Islamistpresident he ousted, Mohamed Mursi, staged daring protestsurging an end to "military government".

Egypt has been gripped by turmoil since the army removedMursi on July 3 following mass protests against his rule.

Political tensions and a sharp rise in attacks by Islamistmilitants have decimated tourism and investment in Egypt, themost populous Arab state, which depends heavily on U.S. aid.

Speaking to soldiers and police officers at a seminar, armychief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi "called on everyone to be truly awareof the size of the problems facing society, and whichnecessitate speeding up the end of the transitional phase," thearmy spokesman's official Facebook page said.

In a reference to Mursi's year in power, Sisi condemned whathe said were attempts to distort "a ruling experience thatfailed to meet the demands of the Egyptian people" and portrayit as a "religious battle and a war on Islam."

After toppling Mursi, the military installed an interimgovernment and announced a "road map" for a transition to a newelection. The Muslim Brotherhood accused the military of staginga coup that removed Egypt's first freely elected president.

Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said last week that thetransitional phase of government should end "by next spring."

Since Mursi's downfall, security forces have killed hundredsof pro-Mursi protesters, and senior members of his MuslimBrotherhood have been arrested, actions that drastically reducedthe size of protests.

Mursi supporters protested in Cairo's Tahrir Square onTuesday for the first time since the army forced him from officein July, risking the wrath of security forces who had beenkeeping a close eye on the area.

About 100 protesters gathered in the square, chanting, "Downwith the military government!"

"We are a country not a military camp," the Mursi supportersshouted in Tahrir, which was the rallying point in 2011 forhundreds of thousands of people against former President HosniMubarak. "We want freedom!" they said.

Shortly after arriving in Tahrir, passersby attacked themwith rocks. Riot police then moved in and dispersed the crowd.

SEEKING RECONCILIATION

At talks this week, European Union foreign policy chiefCatherine Ashton will encourage reconciliation between thegovernment and the Brotherhood, a European diplomatic sourcesaid.

"She is coming to explore the possibilities for a return toa transition in which all sides can participate," the Europeandiplomat said in Cairo. Ashton arrived on Tuesday.

"Things are still not completely black and white, althoughthe situation is extremely difficult and reconciliation isbecoming a difficult word in Egypt."

Getting the army-backed government and the Brotherhood tocompromise may be an impossible mission for Ashton, who failedon a previous visit, as did several Western envoys, to persuadethe military to avoid using force against Mursi's supporters.

Security forces crushed pro-Mursi protest camps on Aug. 14,killing hundreds of people.

The Brotherhood's leaders were arrested in a bid todecapitate the movement, which won every election inpost-Mubarak Egypt. A court has now banned the movement andordered its assets frozen.

The European diplomat said Ashton would meet governmentleaders, Sisi and Muslim Brotherhood politicians Amr Darrag andMohamed Ali Bishr, who both served as negotiators for themovement in talks with U.S. and EU envoys that failed to preventthe bloody raids on protest camps.

Most Brotherhood leaders are in jail, including Mursi.

A security source said Ashton would likely encourage theEgyptian government to overturn a court ruling that outlawed theBrotherhood and gradually release its leaders from prison oncondition they acknowledge that popular protests ultimatelyremoved Mursi, not a coup.

Ashton is expected to explore whether there is still roomfor an initiative that Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Bahaa el-Din,a liberal, put to the Cabinet in August.

The proposal called for an immediate end to the state ofemergency, political participation for all parties andguarantees of human rights, including free assembly.

"This is one of the possibilities that should be explored," the diplomat said.

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