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Egypt, preparing for a massacre?

Afro-Middle East Centre 26 July 2013

General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s deputy prime minister, defence minister, army commander-in-chief, and the person in control of the country’s post-coup interim government, Wednesday called on Egyptians to give him a mandate to confront ‘violence and…terrorism’. ‘This coming Friday, all honourable Egyptians must take to the street to give me a mandate, and, indeed, an order to counter the violence and terrorism facing us…I want you to show the world that you have a will, and that you want us to act on your behalf to end terrorism,’ Sisi said.

It was a move that is widely seen as the military seeking popular cover for the violent suppression – even a massacre – of the Muslim Brotherhood and opponents of the 3 July military coup. The Brotherhood and its alliance partners in the ‘National Coalition for Legitimacy’ have been protesting for the past three weeks, after the coup ousted President Mohamed Mursi.

Over the past weeks, Mursi supporters have already been attacked by the military, security forces and unknown assailants. Security forces have refused to secure these protests, and, in some instances, have participated in the attacks. This included the 8 July Republican Guard Club massacre when security forces fired on largely unarmed protesters in an attempt to neutralise the protest, leaving more than fifty people dead. Sisi’s Wednesday statement has led many to fear an intensification of such actions.

The drastic increase in political polarisation in recent weeks, and state and private media’s successful vilification and demonisation of the Brotherhood and conflation of the group with disparate militant groups in the lawless Sinai peninsula, will likely see Sisi’s latest action receiving much popular support, and large numbers of people responding to his call today.

Christian Coptic leaders have voiced their support, with Sergius Sergius (secretary of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate) asserting that Sisi’s speech was ‘very good’, and Andrea Zaky, the head of Egypt’s evangelical community, arguing that the military needed ‘popular support’ and that Sisi’s action would lead to the ‘security of Egyptians’. The National Salvation Front (NSF), a coalition formed to oppose Mursi and led by Mohamed Elbaradei, as well as the recently-formed Tamarod movement have also supported Sisi’s call. In a chilling statement, Tamarod called on Egyptians to ‘gather in all the squares on Friday to call for the trial of Mohamed Mursi, support the Egyptian armed forces in the coming war against terrorism and cleansing the land of Egypt’. This vitriol is fairly typical of recent NSF and Tamarod pronouncements, with their defence of military violence and the coup, and their demonisation of the Brotherhood.

Sisi’s statement was soon after a flawed ‘reconciliation’ initiative began earlier on Wednesday, and which was boycotted by the main Islamist parties – including Al-Nour, which supports the coup. His call highlights the folly of those who believe that the military was altruistic in toppling the Mursi administration, or that it will soon relinquish power and put Egypt back on a democratic path.

The Brotherhood has, in the meanwhile, been gaining support from some groups previously affiliated to Tamarod. The April 6 youth movement – which was a major player in the 2011 uprisings against Hosni Mubarak – and Al Nour both issued strong statements denouncing Sisi’s call, and arguing that its consequences may threaten national security and lead to civil war. April 6 told the army: ‘Why do you want an open mandate to do anything? We will not allow “fighting terrorism” as a pretence for persecuting your opponents; we will not participate in [giving you] and open mandate; we will not participate this coming Friday.’

Considering Sisi’s threats, only a small spark in the protests – scheduled for today – will be sufficient for events to rage out of control and for widespread violence to result. There are many fears that today and this weekend will result in largescale bloodshed and the loss of hundreds of lives – mainly on the anti-coup side. Apart from the immediate impact of such an eventuality, the longterm implications for Egypt are also horrendous. The Brotherhood, operating underground for almost ninety years, will likely be forced underground again, with its more militant elements opting for violent resistance rather than the more pacifist strategy of the MB. The polarisation and hatred in Egypt will increase; and Egypt could be forced to live with under six decades of military rule – albeit with a veneer of some democratic processes.

More Egypt protests

Supporters and opponents of Egypt’s deposed president are preparing for mass protests called for by the army chief, and later by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, in a struggle over the country’s future. Egyptians are expected to join street rallies on Friday, with many heeding a call earlier in the week from General Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the head of the army, who urged them to strengthen a military “mandate” to stop “violence and terrorism”.

More are also expected to join thousands of Morsi supporters who have been rallying against his overthrow and holding demonstrations since July 3. The Muslim Brotherhood has called on its supporters to help fill the streets in solidarity. Confrontation appeared inevitable following a month of clashes in which close to 200 people, mainly supporters of Morsi, have died.

The army has threatened to “turn its guns” on those who use violence, while the Brotherhood has warned of civil war. “We will not initiate any move, but will definitely react harshly against any calls for violence or black terrorism from Brotherhood leaders or their supporters,” an army official told the Reuters news agency.

On Thursday, rival protests filled Cairo’s main squares, with Morsi supporters camped in Nasr City and those who supported the decision to remove him from power hold demonstrations in Tahrir Square. “Tomorrow we will cleanse Egypt,” said Mohammed Abdul Aziz, a spokesman for the Tamarod (“Rebel”) youth movement that helped rally millions in anti-Morsi street protests before the army moved against him. “There are men carrying guns on the street,” he told Reuters. “We will not let extremists ruin our revolution.”

Friday’s rallies are expected to grow after the first evening prayer which will mark the end of the day’s Ramadan fast. Witnesses said army helicopters had dropped flyers at the Brotherhood vigil calling on people to refrain from violence. The interior ministry has said it will take “unprecedented measures to protect citizens and their property”.

The country remains deeply split over the overthrow of Morsi, who was Egypt’s first democratically elected president. The Brotherhood accuses the army of removing him in a long-planned coup, while its opponents say the army responded to the will of the people. On Thursday, Washington said it did not intend to decide whether to class the removal of Morsi as a coup, in a move that avoids the cut-off of US aid.

William Burns, the US deputy secretary of state, told members of Congress that the administration was not legally bound to draw any conclusion, and doing so would not be in the interests of the US. “We believe that the continued provision of assistance to Egypt, consistent with our law, is important to our goal of advancing a responsible transition to democratic governance,” the official said. AL JAZEER

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