Egypt’s Military Shows No Restraint

Fireworks booming, military helicopters circling overhead and posters of “lion-hearted” Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at every turn continue to mark the celebratory mood in Tahrir Square. The irony weighs heavily when remembering the ardent anti-military protests camped out in the square less than two years ago under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the brutality with which security forces repeatedly crushed them.

Days before Egypt’s first democratic parliamentary elections in November 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood, which anticipated a strong performance, refused to support demonstrations against the SCAF after initially being anti-SCAF, not wanting to upset the military establishment.

How the tables have turned, again, with the Brotherhood finding itself at the mercy of the ruthless military hand it once uncomfortably backed to achieve its own ends. Complacent in the military’s vicious crackdowns against peaceful demonstrators — one of its biggest betrayals of the post-revolutionary period — the Brotherhood is condemned to a similar fate.

Since deposed president Mohammed Morsi’s overthrow, the two large-scale killings of Brotherhood demonstrators, seen as violent extremists by many, have evoked little sympathy from the public. A more thorough eviction of pro-Morsi demonstrators from Rabia and Nahda Squares is expected in the coming days.

There is a truth to be learned from the last two years: Whenever the military has felt threatened, it has exercised no restraint, violently subduing dissent. Every side in Egypt knows and has experienced this. The masses of people who have filled the streets, many of whom have traversed labels since the 2011 revolution — the revolutionaries, the pro-democracy demonstrators, the SCAF protesters, the Brotherhood protesters, the Islamists — have all had their blood shed on military orders.

Yet, in spite of having witnessed each other’s downfalls, Egypt’s political factions still continue to deal with the devil, even though they, too, will likely suffer from the military’s heavy-handedness in the near future.

The massive outpouring July 26 for demonstrations “against terrorism” cemented the bond between Sisi and the streets. At his behest, the street will roar, and at his word they will be quiet. He is a military general who orchestrates demonstrations with one hand and crushes them with the other. The street, with its penchant for army heroes à la former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, is ensuring the military’s entrenchment in the new order. The street has made the military a kingmaker.

While Sisi reassures the country that he has no interest in ruling, the reality is that he is currently the most powerful man in Egypt. For the moment he is beloved, but the problems that he will eventually have to face remain, and will worsen — a plummeting economy, high unemployment, fuel and food shortages and a deeply polarized country.

The civilian government that was so crucial to Tamarod’s defense that Morsi’s overthrow was not a military coup is becoming less relevant as it bows to the general’s demands. The interim president and chairman of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, granted Prime Minister Hazem Al Beblawi the power to authorize the army to arrest civilians following violent clashes on July 27.

Deemed “clashes” by most media outlets out of journalistic caution, the disproportionate response by the security services is clear. As a Human Rights Watch report affirms, “Many of the at least 74 pro-Morsi protesters killed were shot in the head or chest.” There are numerous unverified reports of snipers firing upon the protesters, a tactic used against demonstrators in the past. In a news conference conducted that afternoon, Interior Minister General Mohammed Ibrahim denied the accusations.

As more reporting has emerged about the events surrounding Morsi’s overthrow, the story of the military’s long-held frustration is coming to light. While the coup may yet be proven to be premeditated, it does seem the military was waiting for a chance to become more involved in the country’s governance.

In his most popular move as president, Morsi forced the retirement of Field Marshall Mohamed Tantawi, the head of SCAF and his defense minister, as well as his anticipated successor, Sami Hafez Anan. He also removed the chiefs of the air force, air defense and navy. Viewed as a bold stand against the “deep state,” Morsi’s short-lived gutsiness inspired hope of more reforms to come.

Instead, Morsi only moved to cushion his power. He appointed Sisi, reputed to be a devout Muslim and someone Morsi, along with many Egyptians, believed was sympathetic to the Islamist agenda. Murmurings in the street of a coup started in January, but few believed that it would come from Sisi. However, Sisi and the army were only biding their time as their and the country’s discontent mounted.

In an interview with the Daily News Egypt, Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el-Hadad warned that the “’deep state’ is back.” The problem, though, is that it never went anywhere. As the first civilian leader after a period of ugly military rule, Morsi had a unique, but ephemeral, chance to reform the Ministries of Defense and Interior. There was enough popular support around the retirement of the generals and momentum from the anti-military activists that he could have pushed forward with further reforms. It would have been a risky move, with serious potential backlash, but it may have been one of the few opportunities Egypt had. Instead, Morsi treaded carefully around the vilified Interior Ministry and believed he had tamed the military beast by cutting off its head.

While public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of the military, there are a handful of dissenting voices against military rule and violence. The “Third Square,” a small group against both the pro-army and the pro-Morsi factions, is staked out in Giza’s Sphinx Square. Struggling to be heard over the vitriolic fervor on both sides, this is one hodgepodge group which has not been sidetracked from the goals of the revolution.

The April 6 Movement, which played a crucial role in the 2011 revolution and supported the June 30 protests, and the Revolutionary Socialists can both be found there. Both groups released statements condemning the violence by all sides, but the Revolutionary Socialist statement released July 25 was vehemently anti-army, saying, “The Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown to deepen the revolution, not to support the regime. Whatever crimes the Brotherhood has committed against the people, … we do not give army chief Al-Sisi our authority.”

Catapulted back into its role as the repressed victim of the state, the Brotherhood’s incendiary religious rhetoric,  and allegations of torturing individuals from rival political camps,  is further alienating it from the people. By self-righteously framing itself as fighting for a higher moral cause that surpasses politics, the Brotherhood is fueling the fear that it had always had an agenda greater than Egypt. There is little doubt that Brotherhood protesters are armed, but neither is there doubt the demonstrators in Tahrir are armed.

On Aug. 1, the Interior Ministry promised protesters who leave pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo and Giza “quickly” a safe exit. The civilian leadership has ordered the end of protests. The July 26 mass “anti-terrorism” rallies gave the security establishment a popular mandate, and the Interior Ministry is holding meetings to decide its strategy. The police and army continue to make public assurances that they will use force as a last resort, but never has an eviction of demonstrators after the 2011 revolution happened peacefully.

If July’s killings, which have left more than 100 dead, are any indication, blood will run freely in the days to come, and almost every side in Egypt will be complicit in the additional lives that are lost under military rule.

From the Brotherhood’s complacency to military violence against pro-democracy protesters in 2011, everything is coming full circle with the military’s anticipated violent expulsion of the Brotherhood from the public space, largely supported by public sentiment.

The state security apparatus will be the only winner in the ongoing political battle, and it is only a matter of time before we find ourselves asking who will be crushed under its heel next.

This article was originally written for and published by Al-Monitor on August 2, 2013.

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