For weeks, Egypt’s state TV and private media has been running national songs glorifying the commander of the army, Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, after he led a coalition of political groups and religious institutions to oust Egypt’s first elected president on July 3.
Since then, Sisi, portrayed by loyal media as a national savior and a leader of so-called June 30 revolution, was keen to emphasize that his removal of Mohamed Morsi was not a military coup. It was, he claimed, a revolutionary wave, an answer to growing public opposition to Morsi’s rule, and a fulfillment of the true role of Egypt’s military as a safeguard of the nation.
“Raise your heads up. Be proud of your military. We at the military are God fearing people. We never betrayed [the] former president or conspired against him,” Sisi told military leaders and new graduates at the Naval Academy on Wednesday.
His address was carried live on state TV and was directed towards the nation at large in the middle of an unprecedented political crisis following the removal of Morsi one year after he took office.
Dozens of Egyptians have been killed in post-coup violence, as thousands of Morsi supporters have filled the streets of several Egyptian cities for days to protest the president’s ousting.
However, Sisi’s speech was not only about the past or about promising new democratic guarantees. Before its end, Sisi delivered a veiled threat to Morsi’s supporters - a coalition of religious groups led by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) - sending shock waves across the nation.
“Do you want to either rule the country or destroy it? Do you want to either have the military on your side or destroy it? Some are trying to take country into a dark tunnel. We are at a crossroad,” Sisi said, addressing his opponents.
For weeks the Muslim Brotherhood has been calling on military officers to disobey orders, remove Sisi from power, and reinstate Morsi.
Sisi went on warn the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters against “using violence”. He called on Egyptians across the country to protest on Friday in order “to give him a mandate to face possible terrorism and violence”.
His call sent shock waves through the divided country and was, unsurprisingly, supported by his allies and slammed by his opponents.
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The youth Tamaroud (rebellion) campaign, an ad hoc group that collected signatures calling for the removal of Morsi from power, said in a statement: “We call on the great Egyptian people to rally in Egypt’s public squares this Friday to demand the trial of Mohamed Morsi and to support the Egyptian military forces in its upcoming war against terrorism and to cleanse Egypt’s land from agents (traitors).”
Essam ElErian, deputy chairman of the FJP, called the speech a threat that would “not prevent millions from protesting against the coup” this Friday.
Egypt’s main Salafi party, AlNour the second largest political party in the country, called on all groups not to protest fearing confrontations and violence.
Regardless of political reactions, Wednesday’s speech could be a strategic liability for Sisi and his allies.
Since July 3, many inside Egypt and around the world have been struggling with how to define the transition of power. Some called it a coup. Others refrained from using the word, fearing legal and political consequences and preferring instead to wait and evaluate how the new government acts on the ground.
Sisi’s speech brought him and the military to the forefront of Egypt’s politics once more. He appeared, amid rumors that he is considering a political career, as Egypt’s strongman calling on people to rally around him, protect the new regime, and face-off against opponents. It was more of a partisan call made by a politician rather than a policy assessment made by a professional military leader.
The interim president, Judge Adly Mansour, has appeared in public a few times since he was sworn in. He was seen meeting with officials and delivering short written speeches. But he seems to lack Sisi’s decisive attitude and political weight. Wednesday’s speech was a strong reminder that the powerful army and its leaders have an overtly political role in the new Egypt.
By taking a firm, politicised stand, Sisi’s actions could prove detrimental to the fragile political coalition of youth groups, opposition parties, secularists and others backing the interim government.
Since July 3, the coalition has apparently been struggling. The poor, who protested to help topple Morsi, are back to their homes after some severe economic hardships - such as fuel shortages - disappeared following the coup. The interim government has found it difficult to bring them back to streets since then.
Some youth and politically moderate religious groups who objected to Morsi’s performance were also critical of the hardline anti-religious and anti-Muslim Brotherhood agendas said to be taken by some secular elements of the interim coalition. The youth are also worried about the increasingly political role of the military and their lack of inclusion in new government. In this context, Wednesday’s speech could weaken Sisi’s coalition.
Planned demonstrations organised by the military and its allies also increase fears of the potential for a bloody confrontation between supporters and opponents of the ousted president.
For months, Muslim Brotherhood supporters and opponents have been trading insults along with accusations of treason and betrayal. Tension is high and feelings are intense.
Egypt’s has been suffering a security vacuum since the revolution and many fear the country could slip into chaos.
Sisi’s speech temporarily overshadowed calls for dialogue and reconciliation. The first session of a long awaited conference on transitional justice and national dialogue was held Wednesday at the presidential palace and attended by the interim president and his deputy, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former UN nuclear official.
State TV ran some silent pictures from the meeting with a statement saying the event was attended by “a number of political parties and forces” and supported by Egypt’s two main religious institutions, AlAzhar university and the Coptic Church. Yet, the meeting was boycotted by Egypt’s two main political parties, FJP, which does not recognise the interim government, and AlNour, which is boycotting the interim president and rejects the transition plan.
At best, the call for dialogue is at an early stage and it’s now shadowed by Sisi’s call for mass protests on Friday.