The Egyptian military has called for mass protests Friday to show support for its decision to depose President Mohamed Morsi, turning up the heat on what is already a boiling and dangerous social and political situation.
The rhetoric within Egypt both for and against Mr. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood has grown violent and threatening. Dehumanizing language from Muslim Brotherhood opponents – "terrorist scum," "traitors," "foreign puppets" – is now being matched by calls from Brotherhood supporters for "jihad" to restore Morsi's rule.
Mao may have said that political power grows from the barrel of a gun, but army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi isn't taking any chances. He's adding mass protest to the arsenal.
But it's hard to see any result from the large-scale demonstrations he's asking for beyond a more divided Egyptian public and more deaths. And as if the situation wasn't tense enough, a statement was issued on a Facebook page that Al Jazeera says is "affiliated with" the Egyptian military "today saying the army stands ready to turn its guns "against black violence and terrorism which has no religion or nation." (Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly called it an "official" page). This should be taken as a threat to the Muslim Brothers to keep their supporters off the street tomorrow, since "terrorist" has become a favorite epithet in state media broadcasts – and among secular-leaning activists – for the movement.
Gen. Sisi hasn't been exactly coy about that. In his speech yesterday, snappy in his dress uniform and shades, a veritable army of commendations and medals marching over his left breast, he said he needed a mass outpouring of support to "give me, the army and police, a mandate to confront possible violence and terrorism so that in case there was a resort to violence and terrorism, the army would have a mandate to confront this." The people opposing him have been the Brothers.
Morsi has remained under military arrest since the military took charge on July 3, and the Muslim Brotherhood has held daily protests against the coup, demanding Morsi be restored to power. Earlier this month roughly 50 Muslim Brotherhood protesters were gunned down by the military outside the Republican Guard barracks and on Monday, both Brotherhood supporters and opponents engaged in a gun battle at Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo.
Sisi may be hoping that another mass demonstration for what is an overwhelmingly popular coup will lead the Brotherhood to back down. But the movement has been backed into a corner, and is paranoid and angry now, as are many of its opponents. If demonstrations are met with demonstrations, violence results and the military does indeed crack down hard on the Brothers, what then? They remain Egypt's largest grass roots movement and while they may have lost the support of millions of Egyptians, they still have the support of millions, and have organizational skills that their rivals lack.
If they become convinced the only option open to them is political surrender, the chances that they'll turn to greater violence will increase. And while a likely next move for Sisi will be mass arrests of Brotherhood figures in the wake of tomorrows demonstrations, the Brotherhood survived for decades against torture and indefinite detention by the Egyptian military. The role of the defiant and resilient outsider is one the Brotherhood is most comfortable and experienced at playing.
Sarah Carr has a good view from the ground on how the Muslim Brotherhood – due to its own arrogance and incompetence, and a slick media campaign – has become a "terrorist" organization in the public's eye, and on how an Egyptian public that wanted the Egyptian military out of politics in early 2011 now appears to be clamoring for a paternalistic general to lead them again:
At some point between the end of June and today, allegations that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization stopped being allegations and became facts. It was a gradual process, like watching a photograph develop — the outlines slowly became clearer, and the picture emerged. Two groups laid the groundwork for all this: The Muslim Brotherhood, and the media. The Brotherhood, with its obstinate hubris and desperate attempts for attention, with its traffic-paralyzing marches and the inevitable confrontations they provoke... It was mostly the privately owned satellite media and newspapers that became the army’s court jester, or at least did so with the most gusto. Logos appeared on screens insistently informing viewers that June 30 was a popular revolution, not a coup. Then the terrorism rhetoric began, and the pro-Morsi protesters were no longer just a bunch of skin-disease ridden, cult supporting lunatics, but also terrorists. Again, this happened almost seamlessly. Television presenters indulged themselves in the vilest xenophobia against Palestinians and Syrians, who they claimed were camped out in pro-Morsi sit-ins and meddling in Egyptian affairs.
It doesn't end there. Egyptian social media is filled with wild conspiracy theories that the Muslim Brotherhood are foreign agents controlled by the US, or Hamas, or Iran – sometimes even all three together. Xenophobic passions have been stirred to such an extent that it seems the definition of "Egyptian" is "he who agrees with me" and "foreigner" means "everyone who doesn't."
Shows of bravado from the Brothers also aren't helping matters. "Prepare for a second of jihad," senior Muslim Brotherhood member, Mohammed al-Beltagi, urged protesters on Wednesday in response to Sisi's call for mass rallies. Though he also urged supporters to remain peaceful, the religious choice of words can't be ignored.
More clashes seem inevitable in Egypt tomorrow, and that almost certain violence will make the real task for Egypt – finding some kind of national consensus on a constitution, on fresh elections, a way out of the paralysis of street politics and fury – even harder than it's been since Mubarak was ousted in February 2011.