By Maggie Fick and Matthew Robinson
CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt’s rulers allowed an EU envoy to meet deposed President Mohamed Mursi, the first time an outsider was given access to him since the army overthrew him and jailed him a month ago, and she said she found him in good health.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton revealed little about what she called a “friendly, open and very frank” two-hour conversation with Mursi, after she was flown to an undisclosed location to visit him.
“I’ve tried to make sure that his family know he is well,” said Ashton, who has emerged as one of the only figures accepted by both sides as a potential mediator in a conflict that has plunged the most populous Arab state into violent confrontation.
Ashton said Mursi had access to television and was informed about the situation in the country. Nearly 300 people have been killed in violence since Mursi was removed on July 3, including 80 of his supporters gunned down at dawn on Saturday.
Media have speculated about why the military-backed rulers would have allowed her to meet the ousted leader who had been kept incommunicado for a month.
She denied that she carried an offer to Mursi, who faces charges including murder, of “safe exit” if he were to renounce his claim to the presidency.
Many people have suggested such an arrangement could be part of a deal that would allow Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood to leave the streets and join an army-backed “road map” to civilian rule, but would require Mursi to abandon his historic mandate as Egypt’s first freely-elected leader.
Ashton said she would not attempt to characterize Mursi’s positions, which no one has heard since he was overthrown.
“I also told him in my two hour conversation that I was not going to represent his views because in the circumstances he cannot correct me if I do it wrongly,” she said.
CONDITION OF VISIT
Meeting Mursi was a condition of Ashton’s offer to visit Egypt, where she also met with the general who removed him and other top leaders on her second trip in 12 days.
“I said I wouldn’t come unless I could see him (Mursi),” said Ashton, who has emerged this year as the main international envoy in Egypt where the traditional Western ally, the United States, is regarded with extreme suspicion by both sides.
She was flown in a military helicopter to the meeting and said she did not know where she was.
“I saw where he was. I don’t know where he is but I saw the facilities he has,” said Ashton.
Egypt’s authorities say Mursi is being investigated for charges including murder, stemming from a 2011 jailbreak when he escaped detention during protests against former autocrat Hosni Mubarak. His Muslim Brotherhood says the charges are absurd and trumped up to justify his detention.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called for Mursi to be released. Washington and other Western capitals have made similar calls.
“France calls for the rejection of violence and for the release of political prisoners including former president Mursi,” Fabius said.
Ashton spent Monday shuttling between Egypt’s rulers and the Brotherhood to try to pull the country back from more bloodshed.
Foreign countries are urging the military-backed rulers to reach compromise with Mursi’s Brotherhood to avert further bloodshed, calls that gained urgency after Saturday’s killings.
The government has ordered the Brotherhood to abandon a vigil it has maintained with thousands of supporters camping out to demand Mursi’s return. The Brotherhood says it will not leave the streets unless Mursi is restored.
Asked if she had urged authorities not to clear the vigil, Ashton said she had called on all sides to avert violence.
“What we said to everyone is you need to find a calm resolution to the situation on the ground. We’ve been talking to everyone about the squares and what’s happening there. We’ve made it clear that there is no place for violence in this.”
The violence has raised global anxiety that the army may try 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.
Raising the prospect of more bloodshed, the Brotherhood has said it would hold marches again on Tuesday.
The White House, treading a fine line with a pivotal Arab ally that it funds with $1.3 billion a year in military aid, said on Monday it “strongly condemns” Saturday’s bloodshed, and urged respect for the right to peaceful protest.
“Violence not only further sets back the process of reconciliation and democratization in Egypt, but it will negatively impact regional stability,” spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Ashton met General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the army and the man who overthrew Egypt’s first freely-elected president. She also held talks with members of the interim government installed by the army, and with representatives of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood’s political wing.
(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Peter Graff)
[Image via Agence France-Presse]