Egypt's military-backed government signaled Wednesday that it plans to disperse supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsy camped out at sit-ins in Cairo, raising fears it will trigger violent confrontations.
Citing a threat to national security and traffic congestion, interim Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim was authorized to take "all necessary measures to face these dangers and end them," Information Minister Durriya Sharaf el-Din said in a televised speech following the weekly Cabinet meeting.
"The acts of terrorism and the blocking of roads are no longer acceptable and represent a threat to national security and terrorize citizens," Sharaf el-Din said.
The statement is being widely interpreted by local media outlets as a green light for security forces to disperse the thousands of protesters at the sit-ins at squares in Rabaa al-Adawiya and Nahda Masr.
The announcement comes just days after more than 150 people died in clashes in Cairo and Alexandria, killings that were widely condemned by world leaders and the United Nations. Protesters accused police of opening fire and killing 72 people during a pro-Morsy demonstration in Nasr City, an area of Cairo where the Muslim Brotherhood has made its base.
Amnesty International called the announcement "a recipe for further bloodshed."
"Given the Egyptian security forces' record of policing demonstrations with the routine use of excessive and unwarranted lethal force, this latest announcement gives a seal of approval to further abuse," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
The Interior Ministry is studying the appropriate measures for dealing with the protesters and any weapons and "external elements" in the two squares, state-run EGYNews said, citing a high-level security source.
The source said forces would approach the mission according to the law and in phases, beginning with a warning, then use tear gas until the need for legitimate self-defense.
Since Morsy was ousted from office on July 3, hundreds of people have been killed and thousands more wounded.
The former Muslim Brotherhood leader became Egypt's first democratically president in June 2012 but quickly found himself at odds with the opposition before the military removed him from power and detained him this month.
He has not been seen publicly since he was overthrown. Morsy is being held in relation for a jailbreak that took place during Egypt's 2011 revolution but well before he came to power, state media reported.
One protester downplayed the Cabinet statement. "It would be ridiculous to assume that the military is waiting for permission from government," Reda Abdelaziz, a member of the pro-Morsy Anti-Coup Alliance, told CNN.
A doctor at the Muslim Brotherhood field hospital in Rabaa al-Adawiya said his entire family is at the sit-in and they're prepared for the worst. "We will never leave. All the families are coming here, and we will stay," said Hesham Ibrahim.
Several Egyptian human rights groups demanded in a statement released Tuesday the the interior minister resign over Saturday's killings and demanded that government forces refrain from further violence.
Muslim Brotherhood officials said on the group's website that they will continue protesting until Morsy is put back in office.
Also, prosecutors have extended the detention of top Muslim Brotherhood leaders for 15 days over charges of inciting to kill protesters in front of the Muslim Brotherhood office in the days before the July 3 military coup, state-run Nile TV said. They include Khairat el-Shater and Mohammed Rashad Bayoumi.
AU delegation visit
A high-level African Union delegation working to ease tensions in Egypt met with Morsy and the leaders who replaced his Muslim Brotherhood-backed administration after coup, the AU said Wednesday.
This comes amid international efforts to forge stability in a country seething with political tension and reeling from spurts of sporadic and deadly violence after Morsy was toppled on the heels of mass protests against his rule.