In a speech at a military graduation ceremony aired live on television, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, chief of the Egyptian army, asked "honest Egyptians to take to the streets today, Friday, July 26, to reveal their will and authorize the army and police with a mandate and an order to do what is necessary to stop bloodshed.” This call, despite being warmly welcomed by most Egyptians, was met with reservations from some activists and sharply denounced by the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies.
This morning, thousands assembled in Tahrir, Etehadya and other revolutionary squares around the country while banners flooded downtown Cairo supporting Sisi and condemning terrorism. Rallies supporting the army marched toward designated squares as the military and the police stepped up their presence in anticipation of possible clashes between demonstrators and Morsi supporters. Anti-Morsi demonstrators made citizen's arrests of three armed men who are said to be Morsi supporters while trying to mingle with an anti-Morsi march from Mostafa Mahmoud Square heading to Tahrir and turned them in to the police. Clashes erupted in Alexandria between Morsi supporters and demonstrators where shot guns were used, though there were no reports of fatalities. With the media strongly mobilizing for today’s demonstrations, it is expected that the final turnout after iftar (Ramadan's fast-breaking meal) in support of Sisi’s call will be substantial. In a gesture to show national unity and solidarity, and which could lead to an even greater turnout, Egyptian Christians will be fasting today alongside their Muslim countrymen and for the first time in history, the Egyptian Coptic churches will ring their bells at sunset signaling breakfast time along with those of Al Maghreb Azan.
Many Egyptians had started to criticize the army and the police for not protecting citizens killed and injured by militant supporters of the ousted president. Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent blogger, revolutionary and human rights activist who was jailed for several months under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) rule, appeared on a video demanding that the pro-Morsi sit-in at El Nahda square in Giza be dissolved. Alaa said that some protesters were heavily armed and had engaged in violent clashes with several neighboring districts.
“Residents cannot deal with these armed militants. There is no political solution to this. Only security forces can deal with this situation,” Alaa said in a video taken after he and his mother were attacked with live ammunition two days ago.
Sisi’s speech seemed to capitalize on a number of things. People have grown outraged at the collateral damage which is caused by Morsi’s supporters. A handful of protesters loyal to the ousted president, armed and wearing helmets, roam the streets, blocking vital roads and bridges, trying to storm key facilities such as train stations and even airports. Clashes erupt with shopkeepers or residents of affected areas and result in many casualties.
Sisi is also cashing on his political capital. He has emerged as the country’s hero and savior after siding with the people’s demands to oust Morsi. Sisi seems to have learned from the mistakes of the first transition, which was poorly managed by the SCAF, and is now skillfully speaking directly to the hearts of Egyptians and using the mechanics of “crowd democracy” to mobilize political support behind the second transition’s army-sponsored road map, which he personally presented to the Egyptian people on July 3 following the ouster of Morsi.
During his latest speech, Sisi made several emotional links with his Egyptian audience, saying that the army only acts when commanded by the great Egyptian people and citing his many warnings, as early as November of last year, advising Morsi to seek a consensus with the opposition and his numerous offers to use the army’s credibility to bring Morsi’s opponents to the table in a dialog which he, as head of the army, would sponsor, but wished to take no part in. In one instance, he recalled how Morsi welcomed the initiative, only to cancel the dialog the next day, apparently acting on instructions of the Muslim Brotherhood’s powerful Guidance Bureau.
Sisi aimed to persuade his audience that he and the army acted in an honorable and professional manner. He said, "Don't ever think that I deceived the former president … I urged him to be a president for all Egyptians,” and explained that the army was forced to intervene to prevent the country from sliding into chaos. In his speech, Sisi also addressed the Muslim Brotherhood's allegations that the army was becoming divided, assuring Egyptians that their army was “with one heart … I swear by God that the Egyptian army is united."
The Muslim Brotherhood's supreme guide made an unusually harsh attack on Egypt's military chief July 25, saying his ouster of Morsi was a worse crime even than destroying the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine. Mohamed El-Beltagy, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, condemned the call for demonstrations, saying that "Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ... is now calling for a civil war himself." The National Coalition to Support Legitimacy, which is mainly composed of the Brotherhood and its allies, condemned Sisi’s call for demonstrations and called upon members of the “armed forces and the Egyptian police to disobey Sisi’s orders to kill your fellow brethren.”
Sisi's call has been supported by Tamarod, the rebel movement that coordinated the protests in June which brought millions onto the street and resulted in Morsi's removal, saying that the people and the army are “one hand” against terrorism. The National Salvation Front and most secular parties also endorsed Sisi’s calls and announced that their members would partake in the demonstrations, vowing to make it even bigger than the June 30 demonstrations which caused Morsi’s ouster. As one party leader put it, “It is unusual, even dangerous, to demonstrate to give the military an authorization to deal with terrorists. But let’s face it — even if we refused to demonstrate, it would make no difference. The people will turn out in millions anyway.” It is a realistic assessment of the limited influence of organized political entities on the public mood. Since the Jan. 25 revolution, political parties have always been behind the people and not leading them. But this is the nature of "crowd democracy."
Over 100 people have already died and hundreds injured in fighting, mostly in Cairo, since the crisis began. And while the Brotherhood tried to claim that it was its people who were attacked, residents of Manial, Bayn El Sarayat and Giza districts are burying their dead and putting the blame on Islamist militants and the Brotherhood’s militias. El Beltagy’s earlier comments about terrorism in Sinai also suggested that attacks which had been stepped up since Morsi’s ouster are orchestrated between the Muslim Brothers and their Jihadist allies. Opponents of the Brotherhood also point at recent news of the assassination of opposition leader Brahmi in Tunisia, and Belaid before him, to support their accusations of the Brothers and their allies.
But not all revolutionary forces welcomed Sisi’s call with the same enthusiasm. April 6, the influential youth group that had played a key role in the anti-Mubarak uprising, has said that the army doesn't need a popular mandate to act against security threats. But it said the army should "eradicate all signs of arming and violence in a way governed by the law and without exceptional measures." How ironic it is that the army chief calls for demonstrations, usually a revolutionary tool, while revolutionaries speak of the law! The youth wing of El Dostour party rejected giving any mandates except to enforce the “law.” The difference between Tamarod’s position and that of the April 6 movement’s simply reflects the “crowd,” or constituency, on whose behalf each speaks. While April 6 may represent hard-core revolutionaries, Tamarod has a much wider base which includes the “couch party” and even “foloul.” This is exactly the majority “crowd” that Sisi targets and relies upon.
One the other hand, some activists are suspicious of the military's intentions and are concerned that this mandate could soon lead to rewinding things back to Mubarak’s police state and pre-revolution oppressive measures. Most revolutionaries, however, acknowledge that the nature of the relationship between the people and authority in Egypt has permanently changed, and that the “clock could never go back.” Optimists see the mandate as politically necessary because during the revolution and for several months after, protesters considered attacking police stations and security facilities a legitimate act of “peaceful” protest and blamed authorities when they fired back at attackers. Clearly, this will no longer be tolerated. What the mandate means is that the rules of engagement have just changed. On their Facebook and Twitter accounts, some Muslim Brothers asked their friends to reject Sisi’s call and deny him the mandate he demanded, saying that it will be used to justify a crackdown on the Brotherhood.
It is expected that Sisi will get what he wished for. The millions of Egyptians to whom Sisi spoke directly need no permission from activists to demonstrate. But one has to be careful with one's wishes. What shall the army do with this mandate? If it cracks down on the sit-ins, armed militants will most likely use civilians, women and children as human shields. The cost of blood will be too heavy to bear, which will work in favor of the Muslim Brothers who could in fact use such casualties to regain some of the sympathy it had lost. Sisi’s best strategy may be to deny them such gains and target the real movers of the terror campaigns with minimal collateral damage. It may be also more potent to dry their resources and ammunitions up, rather than risk bloody confrontations. At the same time, failure to swiftly restore order and stop the bloodshed after a popular mandate is granted may erode public confidence in the army’s chief. It is a difficult call and one which may require more than sheer force. It is one of these instances where you have to live up to the high expectations placed upon you as a national hero, or watch yourself become the villain.
Wael Nawara is an Egyptian writer and activist. He is also the co-founder of Al Dostor Party, the National Association for Change and El Ghad Party. Formerly president of the Arab Alliance for Freedom and Democracy, he was a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. On Twitter: @WaelNawara