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With assets frozen, noose tightening in Egypt for Muslim Brothers

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Hussein Malla/AP

(Read caption) These Egyptian clerics at Al Azhar in Cairo today are not happy with the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi.

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US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns is arriving in Cairo today for a three day visit, as protests over the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi continue to rock Cairo, pledges of financial support from Gulf monarchies uncomfortable with the precedent of Islamists coming to power via elections continue to pour in, and question marks abound over how a new transition plan can work in a country so divided.

In a brief statement, the State Department wrote that Burns will stay in Cairo until July 16 and "will meet with interim government officials as well as civil society and business leaders. In all these meetings, he will underscore US support for the Egyptian people, an end to all violence, and a transition leading to an inclusive, democratically-elected civilian government."

That's a nice sentiment, but getting there will not be easy - particularly with a Muslim Brotherhood that is wounded but still potent, and the way Egypt's current military-backed government is seeking to cut off their avenues for political participation.

Army chief Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi said today in a posting on the military's Facebook page that he'd offered Morsi a way out - a referendum on his rule - that the former president rejected, effectively leaving him and the military little choice but to depose the president on July 3 in "the service of the people." That could well be true - Morsi and the Brotherhood had grown convinced that the military was moving with elements of the old regime to depose them, and probably assumed that any such exercise would be fixed against them.

But if so, they badly miscalculated the depth of antipathy towards the president that had developed on the street. His presidential victory was a narrow one over a former Mubarak minister in June 2012, and in the year since the economy had declined and the government's principle initiatives seemed mostly about entrenching the Brothers in power.

How else to explain his decision in June to appoint a former member of the terrorist group Gamaa al-Islamiyaa to be governor of Luxor? The group murdered 62 people, mostly foreign tourists at one of the Pharoahnic temples in Luxor, in 1997. The attack dealt a blow to tourism in Egypt for years and saw the Egyptian public turn sharply against the group. The group is understandably hated in the Luxor area - but its political party was also a backer of Morsi, and rewards were to be handed out.

It is simultaneously the case that a coalition of people, including officers, who had prospered under Mubarak wanted Morsi out and that millions of average Egyptians were alarmed by Morsi's performance, and the looming reality of a movement in power that ultimately wants Islamic sharia to be the law of the land. Now it is the military pulling the strings, albiet indirectly with its decision to appoint a president, a judge and political neophyte, who in turn has started naming cabinet positions.

And it will be the military, used for decades to box in and harass Muslim Brotherhood leaders, who will decide how much space it will have to operate in the next round of political change. Gen. Sisi insisted today that all parties would be allowed to participate in "political life" but there are signs that he didn't really mean it.

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Today, Egypt's public prosecutor froze the assets of some of the Brotherhood's most important leaders, including Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie, key strategist and financial backer Khairat al-Shater, and Saad al-Katani, the leader of the Brotherhood's official political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party. Mr. Morsi remains under house arrest and there are warrants for a number of other senior Brotherhood leaders. The effort to go after Mr. Shater is particularly interesting since he's used his vast wealth and international contacts to finance the group, and was initially the Brotherhood's choice to run for president, though was disqualified for a past conviction for his political activities during the Mubarak era.

The successful coup playbook has neutering the deposed government as the first order of business following their removal from power, and it's hard to see how that isn't what's happening in Egypt now. Yesterday, Reuters reported that Egypt had begun a criminal investigation into Morsi, Badie and 7 other Brotherhood leaders on allegations of spying for foreign powers and inciting violence. The worst violence in the latest round of upheaval has come from the military, with at least 50 Muslim Brotherhood protesters gunned down outside a Republican Guard office in Cairo on July 8.

All of these announcements of investigations, house arrests, and seizing of money could perhaps be a temporary ploy, a public threat combined with private words to Brotherhood leaders that if they'll pull their supporters off the streets, then the army will back off.

But in public at least, the Brotherhood shows no signs of wavering - with spokesmen continuing the deride the "illegitimate" coup and calling for protests. And while the organization has lost the presidency for now, it still remains Egypt's largest grass roots organization, with a history of political organization that few if any forces in Egypt can match. Smooth going in Egypt right now without the Brotherhood involved somehow is hard to imagine.

This is the political scene that will greet Secretary Burns as he travels around Cairo tomorrow. With the US keeping military aid off the table for now, its care in never calling the coup a "coup," and an absence of trust for America across the political spectrum, it's unclear what if anything his visit could accomplish.

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