Saturday, June 29, 2013

Anti-Islamists Protests In Egypt As Army Ready For Coup

Cairo - Thousands of supporters of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi have gathered here as political violence continued to worsen across the country, with at least two people killed in the northern city of Alexandria.

Clashes broke out on Friday between pro- and anti-government protesters in Alexandria's Sidi Gaber neighbourhood, outside the local headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

Local health officials said that two people were killed, one of them an American citizen who was stabbed, the other an Egyptian who died from gunshot wounds. Police said the American was taking photographs of the fighting, but was not believed to be a journalist. Protesters also set fire to the party's offices.

Violent clashes were reported in several other governorates; at least one person was killed early on Friday morning in Sharqiya, in the Nile Delta region, after protesters attacked the FJP offices there.

Egypt's Islamist PM Morsi promoted by
the left-wing Time Magazine.
The rallies in Cairo remained calm, but tensions are clearly running high ahead of nationwide anti-government protests planned for Sunday. On the outskirts of the pro-Morsi rally, rows of men armed with batons and metal rods checked IDs and frisked attendees.

A senior scholar from Al-Azhar, Egypt's highest Sunni religious authority, warned of worsening violence which he blamed on "criminal gangs". "Vigilance is required to ensure we do not slide into civil war," said Hassan el-Shafei, in remarks carried by state media.

Sunday's protests, which organisers hope will draw millions of Egyptians to the streets, will demand that Morsi resign and cede power to a transitional government. The rally on Friday was intended as a preemptive strike, a chance for organisers to show that Morsi still commands majority support.

"Don't believe that everyone is against the president," said Naeem Ghanem, carrying banners accusing the opposition of working with the United States and Israel. "Ninety percent of the people are with Morsi."

The rally was dubbed "legitimacy is a red line," and demonstrators kept returning to that theme, arguing that the only way to remove the democratically-elected president is through the ballot box. Sunday will mark the end of the first year of Morsi's four-year term.

"I'm here to defend my voice. If you want Morsi to leave, that's fine, but after four years," said Taher Mohamed, manning a stall and selling pro-Morsi gear at the rally. “I'm here to defend my voice. If you want Morsi to leave, that's fine, but after four years.”

Protesters railed against popular media figures like satirist Bassem Youssef, accusing them of taking money from Western countries and misrepresenting Morsi's record. They also mocked a grassroots campaign which claims to have collected signatures from 18 million people demanding Morsi’s resignation, a figure which, if accurate, would overshadow the 13 million votes that brought him to power.

Pro-Islamist Morsi rally in Cairo.
The campaign is called "Tamarod," or "rebellion," and hundreds of their supporters gathered across town in Tahrir Square on Friday, waving red cards to symbolise their demand for Morsi's ouster.

But many of Morsi’s supporters dismiss it as a fraud, a vehicle for former president Hosni Mubarak's regime to regain power, and claim to have met people who signed the petition dozens of times. They have launched their own version, naming it "Tagarod," or "emptiness," and handed out signature forms at Friday's rally.

"But you can only sign it once! We will be watching," one campaigner joked, handing forms to a group of women.

"[The opposition] can oppose [Morsi] within the normal democratic process," said Diaa Agha, a senior member of the FJP's office in Cairo. "But unfortunately they refused all kinds of democracy. They want to overthrow legitimacy by doing illegal acts like the Tamarod campaign."

Demonstrators were largely supporters of the Brotherhood or of other Islamist parties, like the Building and Development Party, the political wing of the once-banned Gamaa al-Islamiyya. But the rally also attracted a number of people who described themselves as political independents.

"We didn't overthrow Mubarak because he was corrupt. We did it because there was no democracy," said Ismail Farid, a retired air force colonel attending the protest, who insisted that he was not an Islamist. "And now the opposition, a minority in our country, wants thugs to remove our president."

General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.
The Egyptian military was in control of Egypt for nearly sixty years at the time that Hosni Mubarak was forced to step aside after a month long series of protests against his rule.

During those protests, the military mostly stayed on the sidelines rather than get directly involved, although there are strong indications that it was the military that in the end it was the military that persuaded Mubarak to step aside rather than let the protests get any worse.

In the months that followed, there was rather open disagreement between the military council that had taken control of the country in Mubarak’s absence and the civilian government that was slowly starting to form, including several occasions last year when it appeared as though an open break was going to take place.

Since then, though, the military has largely allowed the new civilian government to proceed without getting involved. Now, though, there are signs that this may be about to change:

Egypt’s army chief warned on Sunday that the military is ready to intervene to stop the nation from entering a “dark tunnel” of internal conflict.

Egyptian army tanks just outside Cairo ready to move in.
Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi spoke a week ahead of mass protests planned by opponents of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. There are fears the demonstrations calling for Morsi’s ouster will descend into violence after some of the president’s hard-line supporters vowed to “smash” them. Others declared protesters were infidels who deserve to be killed.

El-Sissi’s comments were his first in public on the planned June 30 protests. Made to officers during a seminar, they reflected the military’s frustration with the rule of Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president who completes one year in office on June 30.

His comments, posted on the military’s Facebook page, could add pressure on Morsi as he braces for the protests after he spent his first year in office struggling with a host of problems that he is widely perceived to have failed to effectively tackle, like surging crime, rising prices, fuel shortages, power cuts and unemployment.

El-Sissi also appeared to lower the threshold for what warrants intervention by the military. Earlier he cited collapse or near collapse of the state.

He said that while the military has recently stayed out the political fray and focused instead on its combat capabilities, its patriotic and moral responsibility toward Egyptians obliges it to intervene and stop Egypt from “slipping into a dark tunnel of conflict, internal fighting.” He said sectarian violence and the collapse of state institutions would also justify intervention.

More Egyptian army tanks coming into Cairo.
He urged all parties to use the week left before the June 30 protests to reach a “genuine” understanding to defuse the crisis. “We have a week during which a great deal can be achieved. This is a call that is only motivated by love of the nation, its presence and future.”

“Those who think that we (the military) are oblivious to the dangers that threaten the Egyptian state are mistaken. We will not remain silent while the country slips into a conflict that will be hard to control,” he said.

In a thinly veiled warning to Morsi’s hard-line backers, el-Sissi said: “It is not honorable that we remain silent in the face of the terrorizing and scaring of our Egyptian compatriots. There is more honor in death than watching a single

Things have not gone well for President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in their first year in power. The Egyptian economy remains as bad as it was under Mubarak, few of the social issues that brought people to the streets in February 2011 have been addressed and, perhaps most importantly, the sectarian violence that was kept under wraps during the Mubarak years has flared up, especially in previously peaceful areas like the Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt's PM Morsi and army chief General el-Sissi.
The fact that the military is starting to flexing its muscle again given these conditions is not at all surprising and, indeed, it comes at a time when the Morsi regime is in an arguably weakened position:

Fortunately for the military brass, Egypt is such a mess and the Brotherhood (kept out of power for more than fifty years) was so unready for prime time, that the longer the Islamists stay in power, the worse off the country becomes and the less popularity they have.

There was never much chance that the Islamists would match their Turkish colleagues’ success. In Egypt, the risks are all the other way. Egypt could end up looking more like Pakistan where a secure military presides over a ruined country than like Turkey where the military has been for now at least swept aside.

Back when Morsi and the Brotherhood were riding high, the military stepped back from politics. Now, the government is floundering and many Egyptians are less sure that getting rid of the old authoritarian system was such a great idea.

What the military probably wants is a return to an authoritarian presidential republic in which a strong ruler backed by the soldiers keeps Egypt in order, balancing between the liberals and the Islamists and quietly beating up dissidents who get too far out of line. At this point, the ‘stability at any price’ party is getting stronger in Egypt by the day.

A sexy Egyptian army officer ready to show
Muslim Brotherhood's Islamists their place.
None of this is to say that there’s about to be a military coup in Egypt. Indeed, it’s likely that the public would not support such a move at this time. However, it seems rather clear that the military, under el-Sissi’s leadership, is prepared to step back into politics in some respect even in a limited way.

Additionally, it’s likely meant to be a reminder that, if necessary, the military isn’t going to allow him to let his government’s apparent incompetence continue to drag the nation down.

I wouldn’t call it a rollback of what happened in Tahrir Square two years ago, but it’s a strong reminder that Egypt was an authoritarian regime for many decades before and that the possibility that those days could return is still there.

If Morsi’s Egypt continues on the past that it’s been on lately, many segments of the Egyptian public may not be too upset about that.