Egyptian Military Calls for Demonstrations as Threat of Greater Violence Looms

After three weeks of protests by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian military calls on supporters to take to the streets

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Amru Salahuddien / Xinhua / Corbis

Supporters of Egypt's ousted President Mohamed Morsi take part in a protest in Mansoura, north of Cairo, on July 21, 2013

Three weeks after the Egyptian army ousted President Mohamed Morsi from power, the country’s political fault lines are deepening, and many expect continuing violence. Scattered clashes around the country have killed at least 100 since Morsi’s July 3 ouster — the vast majority from the former President’s Muslim Brotherhood — but tens of thousands of Morsi supporters remain entrenched in an open-ended sit-in around a mosque in northeastern Cairo. On July 24, Defense Minister and military chief General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi raised the prospect of a security crackdown on the defiant Brotherhood as he called on supporters of the military-appointed transitional government to stage demonstrations of their own.

General al-Sissi’s call, in a speech delivered at a military-academy graduation ceremony and broadcast on state television, called for massive demonstrations on Friday in support of the military’s intervention and its post-Morsi transitional road map.

“On Friday, every honorable and honest Egyptian must come out. Come out and remind the whole world that you have a will and resolve of your own,” General al-Sissi said. “Please, shoulder your responsibility with me, your army and the police and show your size and steadfastness in the face of what is happening.” He also framed the rallies as necessary in order to “authorize the armed forces to confront violence and terrorism.”

That phrasing is already prompting Brotherhood claims that al-Sissi is seeking a public green light to purge the Islamist movement. Marginalized since Morsi’s ouster, the Brotherhood has been angrily denouncing the entire transition scenario as a coup, even as the administration of interim President Adly Mansour forges ahead without them

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“Al-Sissi and the intelligence service are instructing the Interior Ministry to commit those crimes against peaceful protesters who are being punished for merely saying no to the military coup,” senior Brotherhood member Mohamed al-Beltagy told the state-owned Al-Ahram online news portal. Another senior Brotherhood official, Essam el-Erian, posted a Facebook message that ridiculed al-Sissi and concluded, “Your threat will not prevent millions from continuing to gather.”

The proclamations followed a week of steady deterioration in Cairo’s politically crucial street-protest scene. Morsi supporters have frequently clashed with both police and opposing demonstrators; a recent Brotherhood attempt to march to the U.S. and U.K. embassies, just outside Tahrir Square, led to fresh clashes that injured dozens more Morsi supporters. Even the Brotherhood’s long-term sit-in location has become slightly hostile amid reports that neighborhood residents were seeking to violently expel the group.

Early on Wednesday morning an explosive device detonated outside a police station in the rural city of Mansoura, killing one police conscript and injuring dozens. Brotherhood officials quickly denied knowledge or responsibility and hinted that the attack may have been staged by the security forces to justify a crackdown.

A senior Egyptian military official, Major General Mohamed Elkeshky, endorsed al-Sissi’s maneuver as necessary, “in order to gain the legitimacy from the Egyptians to confront violence,” he said in a statement to TIME. Elkeshky, who served in the Egyptian embassy in Washington for more than a decade before recently returning to Egypt, didn’t mention the Muslim Brotherhood by name but said al-Sissi seeks popular backing to confront an adversary that has attacked police stations and government institutions and made residential areas in Cairo less secure. Elkeshky also accused the transitional government’s opponents of “spreading an atmosphere of horror in different areas all over urban and rural Egypt.”

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Among the pro-Morsi crowds outside the Rabaa Adaweya mosque in Cairo’s Nasr City district, the reaction to al-Sissi’s call was one of defiant fatalism. The crowds there chanted, “Kill one, kill 100/ We won’t leave [Egypt] to the thugs and the thieves.” About an hour before sunset, the rally leader on the loudspeaker told the assembled masses, “There are citizens out there who never thought to join us before. But after they heard al-Sissi’s speech, now they know the truth.”

Al-Sissi’s call is likely to produce a robust street response on Friday. Morsi’s ouster came in the wake of unprecedented national demonstrations demanding early elections — with numbers that matched or even exceeded the peaks of the original 2011 revolution. That deep reservoir of antipathy toward Morsi and the Brotherhood remains, but the anti-Morsi numbers in Tahrir and outside the presidential palace have thinned since the start of Ramadan on July 10. The smaller crowds are likely a result of winners’ complacency and the hardships of the Muslim fasting month.

But the Brotherhood has maintained its numbers, and in a conflict that seems to be partially judged by the size and density of the crowds, it has won the visual battle for the past two weeks. On Friday, supporters of the military transition seek to reverse that perception.

In his speech, al-Sissi also offered some unexpected insights into his relationship with Morsi — the man who elevated him to the military-chief post less than a year ago. Al-Sissi spoke at length about a steady deterioration in their relationship over what he claimed was Morsi’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge the need for new elections in the face of a public loss of confidence. Al-Sissi said he had told Morsi: “Political pride dictates that if the people reject you, you should either step down, or re-establish confidence through a referendum.”

But in the end Morsi repeatedly refused, and al-Sissi in retrospect offered him no sympathy. “Some people,” he said, “want to either rule the country or destroy it.”

Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.

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