CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, said on Tuesday that a plan for a return to civilian government after the army’s removal of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi was on track despite “challenges” and that emergency law should be lifted soon.
His comments were broadcast just after thousands of Islamists took to the streets in towns and cities across Egypt on Tuesday evening to denounce the new military-backed rulers and demand Mursi’s return - their second show of mass support in four days.
The interim government has launched a furious crackdown on Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood since toppling Egypt’s first freely elected president on July 3, following huge protests.
It has accused the group of terrorism, sent its top leaders to trial on charges of inciting violence or murder and killed hundreds of Islamists demanding his reinstatement, most of them when two Cairo protest vigils were smashed on August 14.
Mansour said in an interview with state television that his decision to announce emergency law that day had not been easy, but “terrorism and the vicious war that was being waged by some of the extremists made it crucial.”
If a “gradual improvement in security” continued, the state of emergency should end as planned in mid-September, he said.
Mansour also said a “road map” back to democratic rule, under which the constitution is to be amended, followed by parliamentary and presidential elections early next year, remained on track: “God willing, we will commit ourselves to the timeframe in the coming stages.”
“There are no alterations on the priorities of the plan (road map), even though there are some challenges facing us.”
Although the army-backed interim government has begun to revive the political security apparatus that was shelved, but not dismantled, after the 2011 revolt that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, Mansour said there would be no return to the days of political police.
“The role of the security apparatus of Egypt is now limited to protecting security and protecting the people ... In terms of political issues, there is no longer a role in that. That was a period that Egypt passed through and it will not return ... I assure you of that.”
Although the crackdown on the Brotherhood has taken some of the sting out of the anti-government protests, the well organised million-member group has shown it can still mobilise supporters countrywide.
Shortly before the interview was aired, marchers turned out in cities in the Nile Delta, in Upper Egypt, along the Suez Canal, as well as in the capital, to mark exactly two months since Mursi was toppled.
There were no immediate reports of violence at Tuesday’s marches, held under the slogan “The Coup is Terrorism” - a reference to the government’s portrayal of its campaign to crush the Brotherhood as a fight against Islamist terrorism.
In Cairo’s Nasr City, near Mansour’s presidential palace, hundreds of marchers waving Brotherhood flags chanted “Revolution, revolution, the revolution will continue!” and “Down, down with military rule!”
Some carried pictures of “martyrs” killed in the government’s crackdown, while others stood chanting next to an armoured vehicle, one of many deployed in the capital.
There were no reports of violence, a contrast to last Friday’s nationwide protests, which resulted in a scattering of clashes with security forces, notably in Cairo, and at least seven deaths.
The Brotherhood says it is committed to peaceful protest, and that the accusations are a pretext for the crackdown by a “putschist regime” trying to eliminate Egypt’s oldest political grouping, which had won five popular votes since 2011.
A military court sentenced pro-Mursi protesters to long jail terms on Tuesday on charges of attacking soldiers in the city of Suez, a military statement said.
The violence in Suez broke out on August 14 along with clashes across the country after the Cairo protest camps were broken up in a dawn operation in which more than 600 Brotherhood supporters were killed, along with dozens of policemen.
The statement said one person had been sentenced to life in prison for the Suez clashes, three people to 15 years in jail and 45 others to five years.
TV channels run by the Muslim Brotherhood or sympathetic to it have already fallen victim to the government crackdown.
On Tuesday a Cairo court ordered the closure of the Egyptian news channel belonging to Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab broadcaster financed by Qatar, a supporter of the Brotherhood, along with three other stations run by or sympathetic to the Brotherhood.
Al Jazeera’s Cairo offices have been closed since they were raided by security forces hours after Mursi was toppled, although its channels, broadcast from Qatar, can still be seen in Egypt.
Separately, state-run Nile TV said 15 people had been killed in the Sinai Peninsula by rocket fire, after witnesses said army helicopters had attacked militant strongholds near Sheikh Zuweid, close to the border with Israel and the Gaza Strip.
Security sources gave a different tally, saying government helicopter strikes had killed at least eight armed men and wounded 15, and had been aimed at stores of arms and explosives.
Militant attacks on security forces in the lawless North Sinai region have grown since Mursi was ousted.
The army has accused Palestinians in Gaza, which is run by Hamas, a Brotherhood offshoot, of supporting the militants.
Mursi’s government had made it easier for people and goods to travel between Egypt and Gaza.
But Cairo’s new rulers have tightened controls once more, and have been closing smuggling tunnels that the army believes have been used to move weapons and gunmen across the border.
Local residents said on Tuesday that Egyptian security forces had destroyed some 20 houses along the border, apparently suspecting them of being used to hide tunnel entrances or provide cover for other militant activity.
Writing by Kevin Liffey; editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Cynthia Osterman