Europe's top diplomat pressed Egypt's rulers on Monday to step back from a growing confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood of deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, two days after 80 of his supporters were gunned down in Cairo.
Raising the prospect of more bloodshed, the Muslim Brotherhood said it would march again on Monday evening on Interior Ministry offices across the country.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, became the first overseas envoy to visit Egypt since Saturday's carnage, the second mass killing of Morsi supporters by security forces since the army ousted him on July 3.
The bloodshed has raised global anxiety that the army may move to crush the Brotherhood, a movement which emerged from decades in the shadows to win power in elections after Egypt's 2011 Arab Spring uprising against Hosni Mubarak.
Ashton, on her second trip to Egypt since Morsi's fall, met General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the army and the man behind the overthrow of Egypt's first freely-elected president. She also held talks with deputy interim president and prominent liberal politician Mohamed ElBaradei and interim Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy.
There were no immediate details on the talks. Earlier, Ashton said she would press for a “fully inclusive transition process, taking in all political groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood”.
In comments carried by the MENA state news agency, ElBaradei said he had told Ashton that the new leadership was doing all in its power to “reach a peaceful way out of the current crisis, that preserves the blood of all Egyptians”.
Ashton was also meeting members of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood's political wing. Thousands of its supporters have camped out for a month at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in northern Cairo, demanding Morsi's reinstatement and defying threats by the army-backed authorities to remove them.
“It's very simple, we are not going anywhere,” Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad said before the meeting with Ashton. “We are going to increase the protest and multiply the sit-ins,” he told Reuters. “Someone has to put sense into this leadership.”
Ashton's leverage is limited. The United States is Egypt's chief Western backer and source of $1.3 billion in military aid, though the EU is the biggest civilian aid donor to the country, the Arab world's most populous and a strategic bridge between the Middle East and North Africa.
The EU has attempted to mediate in the political crisis over the past six months as Egyptians have grown increasingly suspicious of U.S. involvement.
Morsi has been in detention since he was ousted and the military-backed interim government has placed him under investigation on charges that include murder.
The handling of his case by the military suggests it believes it has the support of a big majority of Egyptians. They turned out in huge numbers to protest against the Islamist leader before the army moved against him.
Army chief Sisi has emerged as the public face of the new order, enjoying fawning coverage in Egyptian media and sowing doubts about the military's promise to hand over to full civilian rule with a “road map” to parliamentary elections in about six months.
Security forces shot dead dozens of Morsi supporters at dawn on Saturday when they marched from their vigil after a day of rival mass rallies. The Health Ministry put the death toll on Monday at 80, up from 72. The Interior Ministry said one officer had succumbed to his wounds on Monday. Nearly 300 people have died in violence since Sisi deposed Morsi.
Interim Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim has denied police culpability, saying his officers intervened with tear gas in clashes between the Brotherhood and angry local residents.
A group of Egyptian human rights groups called on Monday for his dismissal. The latest “massacre”, they said, “joins a long list of killings documented by rights groups” since Mubarak's fall.
Saturday's bloodshed was the worst since July 8, when security forces killed more than 50 Brotherhood supporters outside a Cairo barracks.
The interim cabinet has vowed to clear the Brotherhood's mosque vigil after complaints from residents about the huge encampment on their doorstep.
Besides Morsi, other Brotherhood leaders are also being held. In the early hours of Monday police arrested two senior members of the Islamist Wasat Party, allies of Morsi, MENA reported. The Islamists vowed to keep marching.
“The danger we face because of the political situation and the coup is greater than the violence we face in marches,” said Brotherhood member Islam Tawfiq, 26.