Supporters and opponents of ousted President Mohamed Morsi battled in the streets of downtown Cairo on Tuesday, showing Egypt remained dangerously split six weeks after the army overthrew him in response to mass unrest against his rule.
As demonstrators hurled rocks at each other and police fired volleys of tear gas, an initiative by Al-Azhar, a top religious authority, to resolve the crisis appeared to inch forward.
The Nour Party, the second biggest Islamist group, forecast that Al-Azhar-backed talks in pursuit of a solution would happen very soon while Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood signaled it was ready to take part as long as they were on the right terms.
Brotherhood protest camps in Cairo's al-Nahda Square and around Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque are the immediate focus of the crisis. Morsi backers stood firm behind barricades on Tuesday as Egypt's interim leaders debated how to end their sit-in.
No police crackdown appeared imminent despite frequent warnings from the army-installed government that the protesters should pack up and leave peacefully.
But clashes broke out in central Cairo when a few thousand Morsi supporters marched to the Interior Ministry.
Pro-army residents and shopworkers taunted them, calling them terrorists and saying they were not welcome. They then threw stones at the marchers, getting showered back in return.
Some hurled bottles at the Morsi supporters from balconies. Police then fired tear gas at the demonstrators. Women and children marchers fled the scene in panic. The clashes spread to several streets and brought Cairo traffic to a standstill.
"There's no going forward with negotiations, the only way is back. Morsi must be reinstated," said Karim Ahmed, a student in a blue hard-hat who waved a picture of Morsi as he flung rocks at a ministry building.
Morsi took office in June 2012 as Egypt's first freely elected leader following the overthrow of long-time strongman Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising the previous year.
But he failed to get to grips with a deep economic malaise and worried many Egyptians with his apparent efforts to tighten Islamist rule of the most populous Arab nation despite its social diversity.
The army removed him amid huge demonstrations against his rule. Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders are now in detention.
Foreign mediators say the Brotherhood must accept that Morsi will not be restored. At the same time, the authorities must bring the Brotherhood back into the political process, they say.
Since Morsi was forced out, the army has installed a new administration led by Adli Mansour, a judge. In a shakeup with echoes of the past, he swore in at least 18 new provincial governors on Tuesday, half of them retired generals.
"It is Mubarak's days," prominent blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah wrote on his Twitter feed. "Down down with every Mubarak. Sisi is Mubarak," he added, referring to General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief who deposed Morsi.
Yasser El-Shimy, Egypt analyst with the International Crisis Group, said it was a partial return to the status quo ante.
"This move would likely play into Islamist accusations that the new regime is an attempt at reviving the old one," he said.
The Brotherhood suggested on Tuesday it would be willing to join a meeting called by Al-Azhar, whose initiative is the only known effort to end the crisis peacefully following the collapse of international mediation last week.
"If they stick to the rules we're asking for, yes," Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el-Haddad said, adding that talks must be based on the "restoration of constitutional legitimacy".
But the Brotherhood would oppose proposals made by Al-Azhar's Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb because he had supported the army's overthrow of Morsi, Haddad said. He said there had been contacts with other Al-Azhar officials.
Nour leader Younes Makhyoun said his party had been invited to the Al-Azhar talks and he expected the meeting to take place "very soon".
"Currently the noble al-Azhar is trying to bring together for discussions those who have drawn up initiatives to agree, for example, on one initiative and vision, which we will use to pressure all the parties, so they accept it," he told Reuters.
The effort, however, was being complicated by the friction between the Brotherhood and al-Azhar, he said.
The government has its own plan for elections beginning with a parliamentary vote in about five months. But for now it is wrestling with the difficult issue of how to tackle the protest camps.
Some officials wish to avoid a bloody showdown, which would damage the government's efforts to present itself as legitimate, while hardliners in the army and security forces fear they are losing face to the Brotherhood and want to move in.
More than 300 people have already died in political violence since Morsi's overthrow on July 3, including dozens of his supporters killed by security forces in two separate incidents.
The state-run al-Ahram newspaper reported that after a National Security Council meeting on Monday night, security forces were likely to cordon off the camps rather than take a more forceful approach that could lead to bloodshed.
A senior security source told al-Ahram that security had been bolstered around the camps to prevent weapons getting in.
Senior Brotherhood politician Farid Ismail said he did not expect the Interior Ministry to break up the encampments by force because of the likely casualty toll.
"It would be a big crime in addition to the crimes already committed, because it will result in a great cost in terms of massacres and dead," he said. "There are very large numbers, complete families, men, wives, children."
Also on Tuesday, a court set September 7 as the start of another case brought against Morsi's allies, including prominent politician Mohamed el-Beltagi, on charges of kidnapping and torturing two members of the security forces.
Writing by Angus MacSwan in Cairo; Editing by Mark Heinrich
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