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Growing risk of a backlash in Egypt

Hamdi Hassan

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Protesters hold posters of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo's eastern Nasr City district on July 2, 2013

Banner Icon Egyptian politics The atmosphere across the most populous Arab country has become very intimidating, with a clear risk of violence between opposing forces, writes Hamdi Hassan from Cairo.

The powerful General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a pressing ultimatum to President Morsi in a televised audio statement on Monday afternoon, calling on political forces to bridge Egypt’s growing divide and agree on an inclusive roadmap for the country’s future within 48 hours.

The swiftness of the army’s new statement suggests it was motivated by the stunning turnout of the millions of protesters on Monday and eruptions of violence that portend a possible spiral into chaos… I believe the preparations made by the military and police to secure the country gave the people a sense of security to go out and demonstrate in numbers that minimize the prospect of counterattacks by Islamists.

“If the demands of the people are not realized within the defined period, it will be incumbent upon (the armed forces)… to announce a road map for the future,” said al-Sisi. Thereafter, the military issued a second statement on its Facebook page denying it intended a coup. “The ideology and culture of the Egyptian armed forces does not allow for the policy of a military coup,” it said.

Yet, the army’s statement was widely understood as an alarm for the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau to respond to the demands of the people. If the MB’s bureau does not concede, it is understood that the army will create a roadmap binding on all parties.

The political opposition welcomed the army’s statement, viewing it as a sign that the army had sided with the people in demanding early presidential elections. “Any cabinet reshuffle, change of prosecutor-general, or any decision by President Morsi other than his resignation is unacceptable,” the National Salvation Front (NSF) claimed. The NSF refuted the possibility of the army’s return to domestic politics, saying it had learnt its lesson during Egypt’s post-revolution transitional phase.

There are unsettling prospects for many Egyptians who concerned with the army stepping into politics. I doubt that the army wishes to make any reentry into politics. The great majority of Egyptians believe that 17 months of interim rule by the army, fraught with economic and political crises, was more than enough for the army. Moreover, its statement reiterated its commitment to the nascent democracy.

Protesters erupted with joy after the army statement

A great sense of relief has spread over Egypt after the military’s statement. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptian protesters erupted with joy on Monday after the military said it would intervene if the people’s demands were not met in 48 hours. Tahrir Square’s celebrations were reminiscent of the night Mubarak was forced from office in 2011, as hundreds of thousands of people rejoiced at what they perceived as the end of the MB and Morsi’s rule.

The leadership of “Tamarod” (the “Rebel” campaign) said on Monday that they welcomed the army’s ultimatum and urged people to rally again until Morsi quits. In a televised press conference, they claimed “the statement of the Armed Forces has a single idea — supporting the will of the Egyptian people at this moment, which means early presidential elections.” They also reiterated their ultimatum that is provided on their website, giving Morsi “until 5:00pm on Tuesday, July 2 to leave power, allowing state institutions to prepare for early presidential elections.” Otherwise, “Tuesday, 5:00 pm will be the beginning of a complete civil disobedience campaign.”

One of the campaign’s leaders added, “Morsi is no longer a president, we call on the masses to take to the streets and besiege the two Presidential Palaces of Qubba and Ettihadiya in Heliopolis at 5pm Tuesday.” He further added that Tamarod will read a statement at the Presidential Palace at 7:30 pm Tuesday. “We have devised a scenario to run the country by handing power to the president of the Supreme Constitutional Court, National Security Council, as well as the formation of a technocratic government during the upcoming period,” he said.

Many of those who supported the army’s intervention hope that the army’s road map will be the same framework drawn up by Tamarod. That plan calls for Morsi to step down and for the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court to become interim president while a technocrat government is formed. An expert panel will write a new constitution to replace the one largely drafted by Islamists, and a new presidential election will be held in six months.

Morsi rejects the army’s statement

Morsi rejected the declaration, claiming that the army had not cleared it with him, and that it could cause confusion. The spokesman for the presidency also denounced any declaration that would “deepen division” and “threaten the social peace.” Morsi claims to be consulting “with all national forces to secure the path of democratic change and the protection of the popular will.” What is meant by “national forces” here is any one’s guess!

Morsi’s rejection of the army’s ultimatum has raised the stakes in Egypt’s political crisis, which has resulted so far in 16 deaths, including eight in clashes between supporters and opponents of Morsi outside of the MB’s headquarters in the Muqattam district of Cairo. Protesters also set fire to the MB’s headquarters before storming and ransacking it. Local television footage caught the burning and subsequent looting on camera, in addition to damaging evidence of an MB supply of weapons, helmets, flak jackets, and materials for Molotov cocktails and petrol.

US President Barack Obama said the US is committed to democracy in Egypt, not any particular leader, adding that the. $1.3 billion in annual US aid to Egypt was based on “democracy-based criteria.” Although Morsi was democratically elected, Obama said the government must respect its opposition and minority groups, and encouraged Morsi to take steps to show that he is responsive to concerns of demonstrators, while urging all sides to work towards a peaceful solution, Morsi and the MB have strived to give everyone the impression that the US always stood by them. Historically, however, American relationships with tyrannies and puppet regimes have come and gone quite quickly.

Fear of Islamist protester spreading violence

After the initial joy of massive rallies on Monday, the risk of a backlash has raised dramatically from Morsi’s Islamist backers, including his powerful MB, some of who once belonged to armed militias. They vowed to resist what they depicted as a threat of a coup against the “Islamist president” who was legitimately elected.

The newly-formed National Coalition for Legitimacy denounced the military’s statement, stressing its “rejection of any attempt to turn the army against (democratic) legitimacy.” Islamist marches numbering in the thousands began last night in a number of cities, mostly in Upper Egypt, igniting clashes in some places. An alliance of the MB and the hardliner Islamists of Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya read a statement at a televised news conference calling on people to rally to prevent “any attempt to overturn” Morsi’s election.

Leading MB figure Mohammed el-Beltagi told a rally of thousands of Islamists outside a mosque in Nasr City, near the Ittihadiya presidential palace, “Any coup of any kind against legitimacy will only pass over our dead bodies.” Assigned with protecting the rally was a line of approximately 1,500 men with shields and helmets, who, with military precision, marched and sang, “Stomp our feet, raise a fire. Islam’s march is coming.” Rumors of incoming Islamist militias circulated all over Cairo last night. Heavy clashes took place last night in the canal city of Suez between the supporters of Morsi and his opponents. Nearly 1,500 Islamist militants marched in Suez, carrying sticks and rifles that fire birdshot, chanting for Morsi and damaging cars. The atmosphere has become very intimidating, with a clear risk of violence by these forces.

Several resignations from the government and more to come

In a sign of Morsi’s growing isolation, five cabinet ministers, including the Foreign Minister, have submitted their resignations since Sunday’s mass protests. In addition to the ministers submitting their resignations, eight parliamentarians have also requested to resign.

Egypt’s Interior Ministry has issued a statement declaring its “full support” for the Armed Forces’ Monday statement. The police forces also announced their full solidarity with the Armed Forces out of concern for national security and Egypt’s best interests at this critical juncture. It is also reported that the Interior Minister called al-Sisi and told him that he will only receive orders from him and not the President.

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