A supporter of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi builds a tent where… (Spencer Platt, Getty Images )
CAIRO — The Obama administration called Friday for Egypt's ousted Islamist president to be released from military detention, as his supporters vowed to continue a massive sit-in until he is returned to power.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, and other leaders of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood have been subject to "politically motivated arrests" since a coup nine days ago.
The comments marked the first time the U.S. has publicly called for Morsi's release, but they also reflected the difficult balance the Obama administration is trying to strike. Egypt is growing ever more divided between supporters of Morsi, the country's first democratically elected president, and liberals who accuse him of running an abusive Islamist theocracy.
U.S. officials are working with Egypt's interim government, which cheered Thursday when Psaki said Morsi's yearlong administration "wasn't a democratic rule."
Muslim Brotherhood supporters accused the White House of abandoning democratic principles and siding with the military, which receives $1.3 billion annually in U.S. aid and is one of the few pillars of Egyptian society over which the United States maintains some influence.
Morsi is being held incommunicado, reportedly at the Republican Guard headquarters in eastern Cairo, but military officials say he is being treated well. His face now adorns T-shirts, placards and banners festooned across a half-mile-wide protest camp outside the nearby Rabaa al Adawiya mosque.
"We know our numbers and we know our strength. Even more of us are coming," said Mohammed Ibrahim, a supporter of the ex-president who traveled three hours from the northern city of Alexandria to join a growing throng of pro-Morsi demonstrators. On Friday afternoon, the crowd seemed easily to surpass 100,000 people.
"No one is going to leave until democracy is restored and President Morsi is restored."
The sit-in has taken on an air of permanence, with protesters pledging to guard their ground peaceably after a deadly clash with soldiers Monday at the Republican Guard headquarters that left more than 50 civilians dead. Brick barricades were set up at one entrance as men in hard hats frisked new arrivals for weapons.
No uniformed soldiers or police were deployed near the sit-in. Security forces say they will allow peaceful protests.
The start of the holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims abstain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset, has added to the mood of defiance. In one tent, women boiled pasta and sliced tomatoes for a large communal pot of koshary, a traditional Egyptian dish, to be served at the ritual evening meal. Some squirted the faithful with water to keep them cool and others crowded under bright canopies to rest in the shade while a procession of speakers took to a stage to denounce the military and demand Morsi's return.
"Logistically, we are capable of running this for months," said Gehad Haddad, a spokesman for the Brotherhood.
But with many other Brotherhood figures also in military detention, and its remaining leaders vowing to avoid violence, the protest was beginning to seem like an exercise in futility. While Morsi's supporters boycotted political proceedings, the military-backed interim government this week appointed a caretaker prime minister, announced plans for a constitutional referendum and new elections, and received pledges of billions in aid from oil-rich Persian Gulf nations relieved to see the Brotherhood out of power.
Repressed for decades by Egyptian security forces, the Brotherhood became masters of survival, cutting deals with political elites and occasionally disappointing its hard-core loyalists with pragmatic decisions. Having won a narrow victory in Egypt's first democratic presidential election last year, the Brotherhood now seems outmaneuvered by the all-powerful military and unwilling to compromise, at least publicly.
"Once they'd been deposed I thought they'd revert to their old methods of accommodation and long-term survival," said Thanassis Cambanis, a Middle East analyst with the U.S.-based Century Foundation, a think tank. "I thought they would try to extricate the best deal politically and regroup. Instead they're playing all-or-nothing politics. They figure they stand to lose too much if they accept the coup."
Several Brotherhood leaders said they wouldn't negotiate with the military until Morsi was reinstated, after which "all options are on the table."
In one sign that the military is giving the organization some space, some senior Brotherhood figures for whom arrest warrants reportedly have been issued moved freely about the protest site's air-conditioned media center Friday, chatting with reporters.
"We are used to going to prison, but now we feel free," said Essam Erian, vice-chairman of the Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, who spent 21/2 years in prison under the rule of Hosni Mubarak. "We believe that we are not defending just our Egyptian democracy but democracy for the whole Arab world."