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Egypt's Government Warns Protest Camps Could Be Seized


In Cairo today, security forces seemed to be holding off on their threats to disband the massive sit-ins being staged by supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi. Tens of thousands of Morsi supporters have been camped out for weeks, demanding he be reinstated as president. Any eventual police advance on the protesters could provoke violent clashes and escalate the country's ongoing political crisis. International mediators have been calling on the government, led by the military, to avoid more bloodshed

NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us from Cairo. Good morning.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What is happening at the pro-Morsi camps? I mean, I gather protesters have their own barricades in place for whatever might come.

KENYON: Yes, they've been there for several weeks now and things have been gradually building up. When we visited one of the camps yesterday, we saw things like stacks of sandbags, a few metal shields, piles of rocks ready to be thrown at approaching police, and lots and lots of gas masks.

We also found the prospect of police moving in hasn't dented the defiance of the protesters. Here's what 28-year-old Ahmad Shaheen thinks will happen if the police do move in.


AHMAD SHAHEEN: Many people will be killed by the military troops and the police. But I guess we will stay, even if they kill most of us.

MONTAGNE: So they are expecting bloodshed but from what you've seen of the camps, do you think they're really prepared to hold out against a siege for very long?

KENYON: Well, I don't see how they could. I mean, we're talking about tens of thousands of people all dependant on water and food supplies coming in from outside. There are large numbers of women and children there. What the police plan is, we're told, is first to cut off the food and the other supplies; allow people to leave if they want to but not allow anyone or anything to get back in; if that fails, then they may turn to teargas and other methods.

The government says it's not planning to use live ammunition but they have, of course, in the past. So concern for civilian life is running very high. And the protesters say, look, if we get moved out of these camps, we're going to go to Tahrir Square or some other public place. They're just simply shifting the clashes in the future, not ending them.

MONTAGNE: And international efforts and local efforts to mediate a peaceful resolution, are they getting anywhere?

KENYON: Not so far. There was another call over the weekend from the Grand Sheik of the Al-Azhar mosque. Muslim Brotherhood didn't think much of that, they considered him aligned with the government. International efforts haven't succeeded. One possibility is efforts by prominent Egyptian officials, including interim Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei. They're calling for a longer term, nonviolent approach to the demonstrators. We'll see how they fare.

MONTAGNE: Well, though, with this threatened siege, what exactly have the military and the interim government said that they hope to gain? It seems like this would really be a problem for creating a democratic process.

KENYON: Well, that is what critics are saying. Their argument is that, we know you want to restore order but if you have a messy, chaotic clearing of the camps, you're simply going to spawn a more clashes, focus more attention on violence and less attention on the political process. The argument goes, what you should be doing is moving ahead with a new constitution and elections. Let the Morsi demonstrators stay where they are.

However, whichever way they go, at some point these people who ousted Egypt's first democratically-elected president are going to have to deal with a very large segment of the population that still supports him.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Cairo, thanks very much.

KENYON: Thanks, Renee.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.