CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's Islamist president made a strong show of unity with the military, standing by the country's top general and warning in a statement broadcast Friday against "slandering" the armed forces after leaks from a report that the president himself commissioned implicated troops in the killing of protesters.
The findings of the report — if confirmed, since the report itself has not been made public — are potentially embarrassing for the military, which has presented itself as the ally of protesters in the 18-day uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
The findings would also put President Mohammed Morsi in a sensitive position. After vowing to win justice for slain protesters in his election campaign, he commissioned the report soon after his inauguration in June, forming a fact-finding panel to investigate the deaths of more than 1,000 killed in the uprising and during the nearly 17-month rule by the military that followed Mubarak's fall. But now in office, he needs the backing of the powerful military, and following up on the mission's findings would likely bring a backlash from the generals.
In the statement aired Friday from a meeting the night before, Morsi stood beside army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, with the military's top brass lined up around him. El-Sissi staunchly denied any abuses by the military and both he and the president denounced "slanders" against the armed forces, though neither referred directly to the leaked report.
"I will not ever allow slanders in any way, shape or form or ... any means to attack any member of the armed forces," Morsi vowed.
Beyond the issue of the report, the high-profile meeting appeared to be putting an end, for now, to weeks of behind-the-scene tensions between the military and the presidency. The statements by the two leaders seemed to be a mutual recognition of the need to work together at a time of increasing polarization in the country that has threatened to slip into sustained bloody violence.
There have suggestions of friction between the military and the presidency over a string of issues, including the military's clampdown on tunnels between Egypt and Gaza — ruled by Hamas, an ally of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood — and over the fate of a border region claimed by Sudan, whose Islamist government is also close to the Brotherhood.
Some Egyptian media have presented the signs as pointing to a full-blown crisis between the two sides.
The military, Morsi's office and the Brotherhood have consistently denied any problems between them, accusing the media of stirring up divisions. Still, the reports fueled a perception of differences over the running of the country between the military and Egypt's first ever civilian president.
At the same time, the armed forces' popularity has surged. There have been increasingly vocal calls for the military to step in to halt the country's turmoil, mainly from some opponents of Morsi who see the army as a savior against Islamists they accuse of trying to dominate the country. Morsi's allies accuse the opposition of stirring up chaos to undermine the Islamists' election victories.
Abdullah el-Sinawi, a longtime commentator on military affairs, said "an escalating crisis" between the military and the presidency — including the fact-finding report — necessitated Thursday's meeting.
"It was an attempt to contain the negative impact of the cold war between the presidency and the Brotherhood on one side, and the armed forces on the other," he said. The declaration presented a "temporary truce," he said, because "neither can overcome the other."
International and local rights groups have long contended troops committed abuses against protests during and after the uprising. The military has touted itself as a protector of the revolution, since it refrained by wide crackdowns on protesters demanding Mubarak's ouster.
The report, finalized in late December, had more specific evidence and carried more weight because it was commissioned by the president. When it was handed over to the president, one member of the panel told The Associated Press it detailed the police role in killing most protesters — but also documented killings and other abuses by the military, a more sensitive topic.
This week, the British newspaper The Guardian reported that it obtained parts of the mission's findings describing the military's torturing of detained protesters, its role in the forced disappearance of others, and its possible responsibility for a number of killings of some who went missing and then turned up dead with signs of torture and beatings during the 18-day protests against Mubarak.
After their 90-minute meeting Thursday night, army chief el-Sissi and Morsi appeared to dismiss the reported findings, and presented a united front that suggested tension was behind them.
Morsi praised the military for "its great role in protecting the security and safety of this nation," and acknowledged its role in "protecting internal security."
Beyond vowing not to allow "slanders" of the military, Morsi spoke of greater cooperation with the military and also announced the long-expected promotion of senior military officers. He committed to consult closely with the military on national security issues and on development projects in the strategic Suez Canal area. His government has talked about Suez Canal projects as part of plans to increase foreign investment, but the military sees the zone as largely under its purview.
Morsi said development areas won't interfere with areas where the military operates, which are "protected and preserved."
El-Sissi said he found Morsi to be "understanding" of the military's concerns.
"I want to tell all those who listen to me that they must really watch out before defaming the military and its forces," el-Sissi said standing next to Morsi. "It is honorable, nationalist and loyal and is very affected by any defamation it is subjected to."
"I swear by God the armed forces since Jan. 25 (2011) ... didn't kill or order any killing, didn't cheat and didn't order any treachery, didn't betray and didn't order any betrayal," he said.
On Friday, Human Rights Watch urged Morsi to release the fact-finding report, saying it would be an acknowledgement of two years of military and police abuse and a way to stem a culture of impunity.
Trying military officers, as well as police, for alleged abuses remains a top demand by many revolutionary groups. However, the newly adopted, Islamist-backed constitution includes new clauses that ensure only the military can prosecute its own members.
Gamal Heshmat, a lawmaker representing the Muslim Brotherhood's political party in the legislature, said the top prosecutor's office should reveal the report "if it contains material that are useful for the trials" of those responsible for crimes.
Hossam Bahgat, director of the leading rights group the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the report was commissioned at a time when tension between Morsi and the leaders of the military was running high. But now Morsi has a clear interest in "maintaining support for his regime from the military."
He said Morsi should start an independent criminal investigation into the allegations or risk being complicit in a cover-up.
But, "at this moment, there is no political gain for Morsi if he is to act on these findings," Bahgat said. "Politics threaten to obstruct justice for these very serious allegations."
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