The first senior US official to visit Egypt since the army toppled its elected president met with officials today to urge them into swiftly restoring democracy, whilst thousands of supporters of the ousted Islamist leader took to the streets in protest.
Deputy Secretary of State William Burns arrived in a capital where both sides are furious at America. The US has supported Egypt with $1.5 billion in annual aid, largely funding the army that deposed president Mohammed Morsi.
Islamists maintaining a vigil to demand Morsi is reinstated called a mass protest today, as have Morsi's secularist opponents. Demonstrations in Cairo have been largely peaceful for the past week, in contrast to at least 92 deaths in the days after Morsi was toppled.
Washington remains torn between its professed support for democracy and its clear uneasiness at the rise of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. So far it has refused to state whether it views the president's removal as a coup, which would require the US to halt their aid.
The Arab crisis has alarmed allies in the region and across the West. In preparation for Mr Burns’ visit, two rows of armoured personnel carriers were in place near the mosque square in northeast Cairo where Morsi supporters have maintained their vigil
As thousands of protesters assembled today, a group of women clapped and chanted: “Down with the military regime! Down with the dictator! President Morsi, no one else!” Army helicopters had flown above overnight, dropping flyers exhorting the crowd to renounce violence and end their sit-in.
Abdel Khalid Abu Zeinia, a 50-year-old accountant who camped at the square for 11 days in support of Morsi, said of Burns' visit: “America works against the Egyptian people's interests. America's only concern is its interests, and Israel's. America offers only words, not practical support to democracy.”
Morsi is being held incommunicado at an undisclosed location while a transitional government is being established under a military backed “road map”. This road map foresees a new constitution and parliamentary elections within approximately six months. Although he has not been charged with a crime the authorities say they are investigating him over complaints of inciting violence, spying and wrecking the economy.
Most of the top Brotherhood leaders have been charged with inciting violence but are not being held after police did not follow through with their arrests.
Morsi's opponents have also called for a demonstration today, despite their rallies becoming increasingly sparsely attended since they achieved their objective of removing the Morsi from power.
The interim prime minister, a liberal economist, named senior ministers on Sunday, including a former ambassador to the United States as foreign minister, a sign of the importance Cairo places in its relationship with its superpower sponsor.
The lack of clarity over the Us position has fuelled anti-Americanism on both sides. US ambassador Patterson angered Morsi's enemies in the weeks before he was ousted by emphasising Morsi's legitimacy and discouraging protests against him.
Last week the State Department further confused matters by saying Mprsi's rule was undemocratic, a comment interpreted in Cairo as implying his removal was legitimate. Washington has also called for him to be freed and political detentions halted.
“The goal of his trip is to engage with and hear directly from interim Egyptian officials and civil society as part of our ongoing efforts to see Egypt transition to an inclusive, pluralistic, democratically elected civilian government,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said ahead of Burns's trip.
The interim authorities say the new government is open to all, including even the Brotherhood, an invitation spurned by Morsi's backers who refuse to have any dealings with “usurpers”.
Egypt's other main Islamist group, the ultra-orthodox Nour Party, has said it will not participate in the transition but will not challenge it, and wants veto power over ministerial appointments. Nour said it had rejected an invitation to meet Burns because of “unjustified interference in Egyptian internal affairs and politics” by the United States.
The political turmoil and unrest in major cities has also fuelled violence in Egypt's lawless North Sinai province bordering Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip, where Islamist militants have called for people to rise up against the army.
A series of attacks in the area have claimed at least 13 lives, mainly security personnel, since July 3. In the latest assault, suspected militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at a bus carrying workers from a cement factory in the Sinai city of El Arish, killing three and wounding 17.
Additional reporting by agencies