Egyptian army chief calls for help to fight 'terrorism' of the Muslim Brotherhood

Gen. Sisi's speech, in which he encouraged Egyptians to show their support in the streets on Friday, could escalate the standoff with the Muslim Brotherhood to dangerous levels.

Jim Watson/AP
Egyptian Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi reviews honor guards during an arrival ceremony for his US counterpart at the Ministry of Defense in Cairo, Wednesday, April 24, 2013.

The head of Egypt's armed forces today called for mass protests to give him a mandate to confront “violence and terrorism,” escalating the military's confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood three weeks after removing former President Mohamed Morsi from power.

Speaking at a military graduation ceremony broadcast on state television, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in full uniform and wearing dark sunglasses, called on Egyptians to take to the streets on Friday. “Come out to give me the mandate and order to confront violence and potential terrorism,” he said.

His words hint at a broader, harsher crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, which has staged an ongoing sit-in in Cairo and large protests around the country since Mr. Morsi's ouster, demanding he be reinstated and refusing to negotiate until he is. It also raises questions about the military's influence over Egypt's interim government.

The Brotherhood fears a repeat of the 1950s, when then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser tried Brotherhood leaders and imprisoned thousands of members, pushing the group underground. With Morsi detained incommunicado since July 3, many top Brotherhood leaders arrested or wanted, and hundreds of lower-ranking members arrested, the Brotherhood, after a year and a half in the unfamiliar role of ruling party, is back on familiar ground as an oppressed group.

And the general's call for support for a campaign against the Brotherhood may find wide approval after weeks of glowing media coverage of the military and building public anger against the Brotherhood amid accusations of instigating violence. 

“He's asking the people for a blank check to start violence and escalation against these protesters,” says Emad Shahin, a professor of public policy at the American University in Cairo. “It's very clear that he's actually inviting, and not preempting, escalation and direct clashes between protesters.”

But Dr. Shahin says Sisi's speech likely also heralds a crackdown not just on the Muslim Brotherhood but on anyone who opposes the military coup.

“I think in essence what you are going through is really a decisive battle between a democratic future and military rule,” he says.

The Muslim Brotherhood appeared to remain defiant, announcing plans for 34 protest marches in Cairo alone on Friday. Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam El Erian quickly labeled the speech a threat directed at the Brotherhood.

“Your threats will not prevent millions to protest against the coup,” he said in a post on Facebook.

Sisi's speech comes after several days of rising violence in Cairo and the Delta, north of the capital. Early Wednesday morning a bomb exploded outside a security headquarters in Mansoura, in the Nile Delta region, killing one and injuring more than two dozen others. Fourteen people died in clashes on Monday and Tuesday between Morsi's supporters and opponents. 

At least 100 people have died in related violence since Morsi was ousted July 3, with at least 54 killed on July 8 alone, when military and police fired on a crowd of Morsi supporters.

The Brotherhood has accused thugs backed by police of attacking its protests; clashes also began when Morsi supporters marched near Tahrir, where anti-Morsi protesters are camped, and both sides exchanged rocks and gunfire. At the group's protest camp in Cairo's Nasr City neighborhood, many supporters have pledged to sacrifice their lives to protect the president's electoral legitimacy. 

A wider crackdown on the Brotherhood may find significant support from a public that is largely supportive of the military. The Tamarod, or “Rebel,” movement that planned the mass protests leading to Morsi's ouster quickly announced its support for Sisi's call to protest on its Facebook page. The movement said it supported the military in its “war against terrorism and cleansing the land of Egypt.”

Mohamed Aboulghar, head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said Sisi's call is legitimate as long as he doesn't resort to emergency law. “He's telling the people, 'If you want us to implement the law, support us.' And that is a reasonable thing,” says Dr. Aboulghar, whose party is a member of the alliance that opposed Morsi.

“The Egyptian people in general, even the Salafis, they now believe that the Muslim Brothers have crossed all reasonable limits by using weapons and by killing people and throwing bombs. The situation became unacceptable to the great majority of Egyptians. And the response from Sisi was in the same line as the people feel,” says Aboulghar. 

Although Sisi insisted that he was subject to the authority of the interim government in his speech, that the call came from a military commander – a charismatic one some believe may be eyeing the presidency – and not the interim president is evidence, to some, of who holds the reins in Egypt.

Aboulghar says that though not ideal, such a statement from the military was warranted because of the “critical” situation and because “if the president said this, it wouldn't have the same strength.”

But Shahin says Sisi's call for mobilization is another step down a dangerous road.

“Instead of going to the polls, he's asking people to vote by going to the streets. This is extremely dangerous because this is creating the basis for ... a populist, mob-based policy, and not a state that's based on rule of law, constitutional structures, and due process.”

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