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Egypt leader and military chief put tension aside

Friday - 4/12/2013, 6:42pm  ET

In this Thursday, April 11, 2013 image released by the Egyptian Presidency, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, center, poses with military officers after a meeting with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Cairo, Egypt. On Thursday Morsi promoted the heads of Egypt's air force, air defense forces and navy to the rank of Lieutenant-general amid recurrent media reports of strained relations between the presidency and the military. (AP Photo/Egyptian Presidency)

Associated Press

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.

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