CAIRO — The Egyptian police were preparing to move at dawn today to choke off two sit-ins where tens of thousands have gathered to protest the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, Interior Ministry officials said Sunday night, vowing to gradually press further until the demonstrators dispersed.
The new military-appointed government has promised for more than a week to use all necessary force to clear out the sit-ins, which were established by Morsi's Islamist allies in the Muslim Brotherhood upon his ouster nearly six weeks ago. But until now, a combination of external pressure from Western powers and internal dissent from liberal Cabinet ministers had appeared to persuade Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the officer who ordered the takeover, to hold off.
It remained possible Sunday night that the latest pledge to clear out the sit-ins might also fail to materialize. But if it proceeds, human rights advocates said, the police action could lead to the loss of dozens of lives, in part because, they say, the Egyptian police are incapable of a gradual escalation.
"If the Egyptian police managed to intervene using responsible, proportionate force, it would be the first time," said Karim Medhat Ennarah, a criminal justice researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "I don't think they have the capacity to do that," he said, adding that the police killed at least 140 Morsi supporters in mass shootings at smaller demonstrations in the weeks since his ouster.
Interior Ministry officials said Sunday that they would move in slowly, gradually surrounding the sit-ins to cut off any shipments of food and water. The officials said they would eventually block any entrance to the sit-ins but leave one exit open so that demonstrators could leave at will.
After that, the ministry officials said, the police will gradually step up the use of nonlethal tactics, including tear gas and water cannons.