CAIRO — Divisions opened Saturday among the mixed coalition of Egyptian activists and politicians who banded together against their country’s Islamist government this week, with a dispute over who would become the interim prime minister showing sharp disagreements about how the country should be organized.
Egyptian state media reported, then later rolled back an announcement Saturday that former U.N. nuclear agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei had been appointed Egypt’s interim prime minister, apparently after Islamists who joined in the coalition against ousted President Mohamed Morsi threatened to pull their support if ElBaradei was installed.
“Indications are directed at a certain name, but talks are still ongoing,” said Ahmed el-Moslemany, a spokesman for interim President Adly Mansour, speaking to reporters in Cairo late Saturday.
The uncharacteristic back-and-forth from the usually authoritative state media suggested that ElBaradei — a divisive figure within Egypt who is seen as a staunch secularist by groups who want a greater role for religion in politics — may have proved too controversial a pick as prime minister. A top aide to ElBaradei had also portrayed the appointment as a done deal on Saturday.
But as reports of ElBaradei’s selection filtered out, leaders of the ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party threatened to withdraw from the broad coalition of groups backing a path toward elections.
“The nomination of ElBaradei violates the roadmap that the political and national powers had agreed on with General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi,” the Nour Party’s deputy leader, Ahmed Khalil, told the state-run al-Ahram newspaper.
Many Islamists view ElBaradei as a leader who is decidedly uninterested in giving them a say in Egypt’s affairs.
“Baradei in a way is kind of the ultimate liberal,” said Shadi Hamid, an Egypt expert at the Brookings Doha Center. “He has a very antagonistic relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is why it doesn’t bode well for Brotherhood reintegration” if he were to come to power.
Just as the democratically elected Morsi experienced a remarkable fall from grace this week, ElBaradei’s unelected rise to the position of prime minister would have marked a remarkable turnaround for a politician who has struggled to find popular support outside Egypt’s urban, educated classes, in a country where roughly half the population lives on less than $2 a day.
Before the decision to award ElBaradei the office was apparently reversed, state television broadcast images of him meeting with Mansour at the presidential palace. It was the first time Mansour had worked from the presidential palace since he took power on Thursday, hours after Wednesday evening’s coup. Mansour also met with representatives from the Nour Party and from the Tamarod protest group that organized the protests last weekend that brought millions out onto the streets of Egypt against Morsi’s rule.
Even before Egypt’s 2011 revolution, ElBaradei — the 2005 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize — had been a harsh critic of former president Hosni Mubarak, who had led the country for three decades.
But his long career outside Egypt, first as a diplomat with Egypt’s Foreign Ministry and then at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, led critics in Egypt to say he was more recognizable abroad than at home. He was director general of the nuclear watchdog from 1997 until 2009. Upon returning to Egypt, he spoke out against Mubarak, working with others — including the then-banned Muslim Brotherhood — to campaign against the leader.
That alliance withered after the 2011 revolution. On Thursday, ElBaradei told CNN he believed Egypt needs a more inclusive government than the one Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had created during their 368 days in power, saying that Egypt had risked a “civil war” before the military stepped in to push Morsi out of office.
Although he said he wanted a role for members of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as ultraconservative Salafist Muslim political groups, he has also defended the shutdown of Islamist television networks that has deprived Morsi supporters a platform to broadcast their views domestically in the days since the coup.
More than a dozen top Muslim Brotherhood officials, and a lawyer who represents the group, remained in detention on Saturday, said Heba Morayef, an Egypt researcher for Human Rights Watch.
With Morsi supporters holding firm to their demands for his return to the presidency, the discussions over new political leadership Saturday took place as clashes continued around the country. Near Cairo University, a site of conflict between Morsi supporters and security forces in recent days, an encamped group of Morsi backers were reinforcing barricades and preparing for more conflict. At least one man in the crowd fired a gun into the air.
“Everything since Sisi announced the detention of Morsi and the suspension of the constitution has been illegal,” said Medhat Ahmed, a lawyer who had at his feet a plastic bag filled with rocks. “The appointment of this prime minister is illegal and illegitimate in our eyes.”
In Washington, the White House issued a statement Saturday saying that President Obama had convened a meeting of the National Security Council to review the situation in Egypt and that the president “condemned the ongoing violence.” It also rejected what it said were claims that the United States is seeking to dictate the course of Egypt’s transition, saying, “The future path of Egypt can only be determined by the Egyptian people.”
In the early hours of Saturday morning, Morsi’s Islamist supporters fought brutal street battles with the ousted president’s opponents. The violence left at least 30 people dead and more than 1,000 injured across the country, according to Egypt’s Health Ministry.
Also Saturday, a Coptic Christian priest was shot dead in broad daylight in Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula, a local police commander said. Attackers on motorbikes shot the priest, Mena Aboud, in his car in al-Arish, near the border with the Gaza Strip, the commander said. But it was not immediately clear whether the killing was connected with Morsi’s ouster.
Abigail Hauslohner, Lara El Gibaly and Amro Hassan contributed to this report.