Gen. Abdel-Fatah el Sissi, Egypt’s minister of defense and the nation’s strong man, made his first public comments about the violence that led to more than 1,000 deaths, including another 79 Saturday, offering a conciliatory tone to his rivals, supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi.
But el Sissi and military-appointed government officials named after Morsi’s July 3 ouster, defended their actions, saying they were protecting the state from those who want to destroy it. Without naming the Muslim Brotherhood, the secret organization through which Morsi ascended to the presidency, they instead described their foes as groups aiming to “intimidate the citizens.”
Meanwhile, on a day when quiet had settled on streets that had been scenes of violent clashes during the past week, 36 Islamist prisoners were killed during an attempted jailbreak, according to Egypt’s official MENA news agency, which said that report came from an unnamed security official.
The prisoners reportedly kidnapped a police officer and were assisted by “unknown gunmen,” according to the news agency. It reported that a Muslim Brotherhood-connected group alleged that police had killed the inmates during a transfer to another prison.
Speaking of the violence this past week, el Sissi and others repeatedly commended the government’s “self restraint” and said they, too, were saddened by the loss of life. El Sissi spoke to Army forces Sunday. Such rhetoric, coupled with Morsi supporters’ conviction that the cause is worth dying for, has turned Egypt into battle between willing assassins and willing martyrs.
“We will not stand by silently watching the destruction of the country and the people or the torching (of) the nation and terrorizing the citizens," El Sissi was quoted as saying in a post on the military’s Facebook page.
El Sissi, who announced Morsi’s removal, said the government would reconcile with those with no blood on their hands, but offered no specifics about who that included or what reconciliation could look like.
"There is room for everyone in Egypt, and we are cautious about every drop of Egyptian blood," el Sissi said.
Other government officials, however, have suggested that there was no place for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s political future.
Sunday, the start of the workweek here, brought the calmest day since at least 638 Morsi supporters were killed in clashes with security forces Wednesday. But the nation remained tense as Egyptians waited for what Monday would bring. Morsi supporters have called for a week-long demonstration against the military and its civilian-appointed government.
The Muslim Brotherhood canceled some of its planned protests just before they were set to start, citing security concerns. But even before the cancellation, it appeared the protesters chose to not come out; either out of fear, to reorganize their approach, to mourn their dead, or in an effort to return to normal functions like work.
The protests were set to begin at 4 p.m., three hours before a 7 p.m. curfew in 14 of the nation’s 24 provinces. But as the hour approached, and troops and police set up barbed wire and tanks at the scheduled sites, only a few hundred showed up. And they stayed several hundred feet away from the security forces, which had set up barbed wire, troops and tanks in the streets.
The break was a welcome and surprising reprieve from a conflict that has transformed much of the country into a quasi- battlefield between protesters and security forces. Instead of thousands in the streets in pitched battles with security forces, on Sunday there was silence. The biggest chaos was at the morgue where families continued to retrieve their dead, and at the gravesites, where they buried them.
Other government officials directed their anger at the international community, which has condemned the government actions. Earlier in the day, Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy told reporters that “brandishing that assistance will be stopped or suspended is unacceptable,” an apparent message to the United States, which is considering cutting $1.5 billion in military and economic aid.
International relations with Egypt “should be bigger than any single incident,” Fahmy said.
The violence of recent days climaxed six weeks of sit-ins by Morsi backers, who had called for his reinstatement. Their makeshift cities snarled traffic. On Wednesday, government forces stormed the sites. On Friday, in what Islamists called a “Day of Rage,” the death toll surpassed 1,000 as demonstrators clashed with security forces, leading to more deaths than during the 2011 18-day uprising that led to fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
According to the state news agency, 79 people were killed Saturday, as Friday protests extended into a second day and a faceoff at el Fateh Mosque in Cairo.
Fahmy said that Egypt was building a democracy and that such efforts take time. He did not speak as to whether the violence could hinder that goal.
“We are in the process of establishing democracy,” Fahmy said.
Amina Ismail contributed to this report.