CAIRO — Egypt's military gave the ousted president his first contact with the outside world since removing him from office, allowing Europe's top diplomat Tuesday to meet with Mohammed Morsi in his secret detention. She emerged from her two-hour talks with him urging all sides to move on toward a peaceful transition.
Despite the military's gesture, two days of efforts by the EU's Catherine Ashton to find a solution to Egypt's crisis hit a brick wall. Some voices in the military-backed government, including Vice President Mohammed ElBaradei, have arisen hoping to avert a security crackdown on Morsi's supporters, but neither side has budged in their positions, which leave no visible room for compromise.
Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and his Islamist allies say the only solution is for Egypt's first freely elected president to be restored to office, and they have vowed to continue their street rallies until that happens. Tuesday evening, they held new marches in Cairo outside the military intelligence offices, and in other cities around the country.
The military and interim government, in turn, have rejected releasing Morsi or other detained Brotherhood leaders, a step the Europeans have called for and that Islamists have said could improve the atmosphere. Instead, they appear determined to prosecute detained Brotherhood members for crimes purportedly committed during Morsi's presidency and for violence after his fall.
Looming over the deadlock is the possibility of security forces acting to clear the main pro-Morsi sit-in in Cairo, where a crowd of his supporters have been camped out for nearly a month — a move that would almost certainly bring bloodshed.
Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, was invited by several parties in the standoff, including ElBaradei, in what appeared to be a last ditch attempt to use her good offices with the Brotherhood to find a way to avert a showdown. The invite came after at least 80 protesters, mostly Morsi supporters, were killed Saturday in clashes with security forces in one of the worst single crackdowns on a protest in Egypt's nearly three years of turbulence.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke by phone with the head of Egypt's military, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, on Tuesday to "urge restraint by Egyptian security forces in dealing with ongoing protests," the Defense Department said. Secretary of State John Kerry also spoke to Ashton by phone and backed her call for an "inclusive political process."
Ashton gave the first outsider's look on the situation of Morsi, who remains at the center of the standoff. Morsi has been held incommunicado in unknown locations by the military since he was ousted on July 3. Ashton said she was able to see the facilities where Morsi is being held, but she does not know his location. Local media said she flew to see him in a military helicopter, and EU officials said she was not blindfolded.
Ashton said Morsi was well and was keeping up with the latest developments in the country through television and newspapers. "So we were able to talk about the situation, and we were able to talk about the need to move forward."
She refused to divulge any of their conversations' details. She underlined that "I am not here to ask people to do things," but to try to find common ground.
She sounded a sober tone about Egypt's divisions.
"My message to everyone is the same: This great nation needs to go forward peacefully," she told reporters. "And the challenge really is to find the way in which you can bring people together and go forward, bearing in mind the starting points are far apart. This is what leadership is about."
Security officials and pro-military media have increasingly depicted the Islamists' protests as a threat to public safety, saying protesters are stocking weapons, blocking roads and threatening army and police installations. That has hiked calls among security agencies and in pro-military media for the rallies to be cleared. Morsi's supporters insist their protests are peaceful.
Standing next to Ashton at the press conference, ElBaradei sounded a note against a crackdown, appealing broadly for an end to violence. "The political solution must have priority. We hope that there is a political solution, before there is a security solution," he said.
Still, he made clear that disbanding the pro-Morsi protests was necessary, saying that if "terrorizing people and threatening their lives" continues, "there will be violence and there will victims. This is the last thing we wish to see as Egyptians."
He also appeared to rule out releasing Morsi, saying that he is under criminal investigation. But he added that while "Morsi failed," the Muslim Brotherhood "very much continues to be part of the political process and we would like them to be part of the political process."
Authorities originally said they were holding Morsi for his own safety, but last week prosecutors announced he was under investigation into allegations he conspired with the Palestinian militant group Hamas to break him and other Brotherhood members out of prison during the 2011 uprising against autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Leading Brotherhood member Essam el-Erian said Ashton's meeting with Morsi was "a positive step." But he said it had no impact on the crisis.
"As time passes, more people will jump off this coup ship," he said defiantly.
Seif Abdel-Fattah, a former adviser to Morsi , said Ashton's visit and ElBaradei's comments were part of a "public relations campaign to beautify the coup." He said it is the military that calls the shots on how to deal with the crisis.
Abdel-Fattah and other Morsi allies have offered political initiatives to resolve the crisis — but all involve returning Morsi to office at least briefly, which for the rival camp is out of the question. Abdel-Fattah's proposal would have Morsi resume the presidency to appoint a prime minister agreed on by all sides to lead a transition to new elections.
Reflecting the continued tension, el-Erian said Monday that by getting involved in politics, the armed forces has lost "its legal immunity," suggesting protests will continue outside military installations. On his Facebook page, the military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali quickly warned against such protests, accusing el-Erian of "incitement."
Abdullah el-Sinawi, a commentator familiar with the military thinking, said the interim leadership was clearly seeking Ashton's help to convince the Brotherhood to disband the protests, and minimize their losses.
"The authorities are in a big dilemma. They ... are under a lot of pressure from inside to rein in the use of violence, and international pressure to show self-restraint," he said. "But the Brotherhood in the streets is a challenge, threatening the authority itself if it doesn't move."
What is the nature of the next steps remains unclear. Security officials said they will pursue legal means to disband the sit-ins, while others are calling for trying those inciting violence and targeting the group's finances.
Ziad Bahaa-Eldin, the interim deputy prime minister, posted on his Facebook that those like him who criticized the Brotherhood for exclusionist, repressive politics and ignoring of the law must also speak against such practices now.
"That is why we should avoid falling in the trap of repeating those actions and behaviors regardless of the extent of provocation and escalation that the protesters are practicing in" the sit-ins. Those who support the new road map should put "this energy toward positive goals that seek democracy, reconciliation and justice."
Bahy Eddin Hassan, a leading human rights activist, said statements from within the administration indicate differing positions on how to deal with the crisis, and said the ball is now in the moderates within the pro-Morsi camp.
"Otherwise extremism will win on both sides," Hassan, whose group had called for the dismissal of the interior minister in the wake of the weekend violence.