Egypt Army Looms Over Politics as Crackdown Cements PowerMariam Fam
Hend Soliman said she knows exactly who should lead Egypt out of a state of emergency after last week’s bloody suppression of Islamist protests: a military man.
“We need an iron fist,” said Soliman, 37, a manicurist in Cairo. “These people know the country and how to run it.”
While the conflict has led to further divisions among Egyptians, there are signs many of those opposed to former President Mohamed Mursi are allying with the military leaders who ousted him rather than the civilian politicians appointed to steer the Arab state toward elections.
Troops under Defense Minister Abdelfatah al-Seesi will help enforce order under the one-month emergency rule, imposed as violence spread after hundreds were killed when police broke up sit-ins by protesters calling for Mursi’s reinstatement. Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, vice-president in the army-backed interim administration, quit in protest at the raid and the failure to pursue “peaceful alternatives.” The U.S. canceled a joint military exercise.
“When you get appointed by a junta, you don’t give orders to the junta, the junta gives orders to you,” Omar Ashour, a senior lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Exeter in the U.K., said by telephone.
The conflict has cemented divisions between rival camps led by the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. The polarization helped give rise to a movement by activists who say they have been disillusioned by both.
Wael Khalil said he initially voted for Mursi before joining the mass protests calling for his ouster.
“There are two mad camps fighting each other,” Khalil said by phone yesterday, adding he belongs to a “third camp.” “The Brotherhood uses sectarianism and religious slogans to bolster its position and at the same time the soldiers have no problem killing hundreds.”
Unlike ElBaradei, many of the secular and activist groups that led protests against Mursi and his Islamist backers have expressed support for the crackdown. What’s less clear is whether those Egyptians seeking stability and a curbing of Islamist influence believe that there’s any institution other than the army that can meet those goals.
“We are still working on our democracy,” said Khaled Dawoud, a former spokesman for the National Salvation Front, the main civilian coalition of Mursi’s opponents. “We are still working on proper civilian-military relations, but this is definitely something that’s going to take time.”
Dawoud spoke before the raid on the protesters, which he called a “massacre” and prompted his resignation.
Soliman said she had little faith in the NSF. The raid on the sit-ins endeared al-Seesi to her even more, she said.
“We are taking steps to cleanse the country,” she said, adding she didn’t consider the protests to be peaceful, a claim contested by the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies.
Al-Seesi said he was forced to depose Mursi, Egypt’s first freely elected civilian president, to end the polarization that intensified under the Islamist’s one-year rule and led to mass protests demanding he step down. The army stressed it had no intention of running the country itself and announced a “road map” that includes parliamentary and presidential elections expected early next year.
There’s reason to believe the army is sincere in preferring to take a back seat, even if it would probably “rule behind the scenes,” Emad Shahin, a public policy professor at the American University in Cairo, said by phone.
“They know that Egypt is going through really tough economic problems,” he said. “If they fully step forward to rule” and fail to solve them, “they will take the blame.”
The economy has been growing at the slowest pace in two decades since the revolt against Hosni Mubarak in 2011. High unemployment and rising prices spurred some of the protests against Mursi, as against Mubarak two years earlier.
Foreign-currency reserves are only about half their end-2010 levels, even after a flow of aid from Gulf nations supportive of the July 3 military intervention.
A military council that took over from Mubarak and ran the country until Mursi assumed office was accused by some activists of using the transition to safeguard its own interests. The armed forces have a substantial stake in the economy that includes a host of service and manufacturing companies.
The secular politicians failed to mount a serious challenge to the Muslim Brotherhood in elections and referendums since 2011. By contrast, in a poll by Zogby Research Services released in June, more than 90 percent of people said they had confidence in the army, more than any other institution.
Dawoud, the former NSF spokesman, said the secular parties have had more time to organize and reach out to more Egyptians than they did after earlier post-Mubarak elections.
“Given how messy and chaotic Egyptian politics have been since the revolution of 2011, there’s a great sense of yearning for stability and order and discipline, and all those values are perfectly represented by the military,” said Yasser el-Shimy, an analyst for the International Crisis Group in Cairo. The public perception of the civilian secular movement is that “it’s divided, it’s weak, it’s somewhat elitist,” he said.
The popularity fueled speculation that al-Seesi may seek the presidency himself. The defense minister, little known before Mursi gave him the job, is the focus of graffiti on Cairo walls, labeling him a hero or traitor.
The army chief reinforced the personality cult growing around him when he called Egyptians to rally in July to give authorities a mandate against violence.
Hundreds of thousands, including manicurist Soliman, heeded the call. Many held his photos, sometimes alongside pictures of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the revered nationalist leader who helped to topple the monarchy in a 1952 coup. Like all Egyptian presidents before Mursi, Abdel Nasser was a military officer, and he was also known for clamping down on the Muslim Brotherhood.
“If anyone from the military runs in upcoming elections, I will pick him and not a civilian,” said Soliman.