CAIRO, Egypt — Facing unrelenting pressure from Muslim Brotherhood protesters, Egypt’s military chief sought to justify his decision to remove Mohmmed Morsi from office, saying Sunday in a televised speech that the Islamist leader had violated his popular mandate and antagonized state institutions.
The comments by Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi — his first since the president’s ouster nearly two weeks ago — came as the designated interim prime minister pushed ahead with talks to form a new Cabinet this week.
Reform advocate Mohamed ElBaradei was sworn in as Egypt’s interim vice-president for international relations on Sunday. The move reinforces the role of liberals in the new leadership who are strongly opposed to the Brotherhood.
Several secular-minded candidates also have been approached to lead the foreign, finance, culture, information and other key ministries. Nabil Fahmy, who served as Egypt’s former ambassador to the United States for over a decade under Hosni Mubarak, was tapped to be foreign minister, according to state media.
The United States sent its No. 2 diplomat in the State Department, William Burns, to Cairo to meet with interim government officials as well as civil society and business leaders during his two-day visit. Burns is the first high-level American official to visit since Morsi’s ouster.
Many in the international community fear the ouster of Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, would undermine Egypt’s transition to democracy.
The State Department said Burns would underscore U.S. support for the Egyptian people and a transition leading to an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government. The United States has called for Morsi’s release. Since his ouster, Morsi has been held incommunicado at an undisclosed location.
El-Sissi said the armed forces acted to remove Morsi on July 3 according to the will of the people as the country was sliding toward deeper polarization and more violence. The Islamist leader was the first democratically chosen leader after a narrow victory in elections last year.
“The armed forces sincerely accepted the choice of the people, but then political decision-making began stumbling,” el-Sissi said.
“The armed forces remained committed to what it considered the legitimacy of the ballot box, even though that very legitimacy began to do as it pleased and in a way that contradicted the basis and the origin of this legitimacy.”
Morsi’s election came after months of turmoil following the 2011 revolution that removed autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak from office, in a rocky transition that was marred by persistent protests, political disagreements and an economy teetering on bankruptcy.
His supporters say the military staged a coup in a bid to undermine the rising influence of Islamists, and thousands have camped out for days near a mosque in eastern Cairo to demand he be reinstated.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which propelled Morsi to power, has called for massive protests Monday to escalate pressure on the military.
Some Muslim Brotherhood leaders have called for el-Sissi to be removed, and put on trial accusing him of treason.
Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el-Haddad responded to el-Sissi’s remarks, saying that the military had no right to act on behalf of the people of Egypt except through “orders of their elected commander in chief,” meaning Morsi. In comments posted on Twitter, he said the military also has no right to decide which protest is worthy enough to represent the people.
Morsi was ousted by the military after four days of protests by millions of his opponents.
El-Sissi said Morsi “entered into a conflict with the judiciary, the media, the police and the public opinion. Then (he) also entered into a conflict with the armed forces.” He didn’t elaborate on the nature of the conflict with the military, but said that comments about the military offended “and were considered a stab to the national pride.”
El-Sissi, speaking to an auditorium filled with military officers, said the armed forces could no longer stand on the sidelines as millions of Egyptians took to the streets to call for the Islamist leader to step down over allegations he was abusing his power.
The military chief said he frequently advised Morsi and finally reached out to him before giving him a 48-hour ultimatum to reconcile with opponents and address public demands.
He said he sent two envoys, including then Prime Minister Hesham Kandil and a trusted legal expert, urging the president to hold a referendum on whether voters still supported his presidency, but the suggestion was rejected out of hand.
El-Sissi appealed to all parties, in an apparent nod to Morsi’s supporters, to participate in the new transition, saying it is overseen by an unbiased leader and will restore the right of people to choose.
But continuing its crackdown on the Brotherhood leadership, Egypt’s new chief prosecutor ordered frozen the assets of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie and at least 13 other senior members of the group pending investigations into deadly violence outside the organization’s headquarters in Cairo and the Republic Guard forces club.
Meanwhile, the military-backed government pressed forward with its transition plan. ElBaradei, a 71-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner, was sworn in as vice-president for international relations, although his exact mandate was not clear. The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog based in Vienna, returned home to assume a role in the anti-Mubarak uprising and became one of the most visible leaders in the badly fractured Egyptian liberal and secular opposition to Morsi’s government.
Khaled Dawoud, a spokesman for the National Salvation Front, a coalition of largely secular groups, said ElBaradei was no longer the head of the umbrella organization because “he is now a vice-president for all Egyptians.”
Designated prime minister Hazem el-Beblawi also met with a number of candidates for his new Cabinet, which is expected to be announced on Wednesday.
Others expected on the roster are Mohammed Mukhtar Gomaa — who works in the office of the head of the top learning institute in the Muslim Sunni world Al-Azhar — as head of the religious endowment ministry. Gomaa, who also heads the faculty of Islamic and Arabic studies in Al-Azhar university, was seen as nod to moderate Islam.
The fast-track transitional timetable included also appointing two panels to amend the constitution passed under Morsi. Those changes would be put to a referendum within about 4 1/2 months. Parliamentary elections would be held within two months, and once the new parliament convenes it would have a week to set a date for a presidential election.
Violence in the aftermath of Morsi’s ouster peaked a week ago Monday when the military opened fire on Brotherhood supporters who were holding a sit-in outside the Republican Guard forces club, leading to hours of clashes. More than 50 protesters were killed and hundreds wounded. The Brotherhood claimed the military opened fire on protesters, while the army says it was responding to Morsi supporters trying to storm the Republican Guard building.
Human Rights Watch said it appeared that “the military and police used unnecessary force” and that prosecutors have investigated only Brotherhood supporters and leaders for their alleged roles in the clashes, but not security forces.
“It is not clear from the footage which side used live ammunition first,” according to HRW’s statement Sunday, which added that “what is clear… is that the army responded with lethal force that far exceeded any apparent threat to the lives of military personnel.”