Soldiers and tanks are back on the streets. Amirah Ibrahim asks what lies beneath the reappearance of the military
Seven months after returning to barracks, and following a transition period supervised by the military which many say was seriously bungled, the army is back on the streets.
“I was determined not to use exceptional measures but now I have to and will do it,” President Mohamed Morsi said on Sunday as he declared a state of emergency in towns along the Suez Canal where dozens died in clashes between demonstrators and the police. “I am ready to take further steps to confront threats to Egypt’s security.”
Morsi imposed curfew overnight in Port Said, Suez and Ismailia “for 30 days from 9pm until 6am”. He warned that he was ready to take further measures if the violence didn’t end.
On his part, Defence Minister General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi warned on Tuesday that the failure to settle the current political crisis could lead to grave repercussions if the political forces do not act to tackle it.
“The continuing conflict between political forces and their differences concerning the management of the country would lead to a collapse of the state and threaten future generations,” stated Al-Sisi in a speech addressing students of the Military Academy.
Al-Sisi remained conservative about the political struggle since he took office in August 2012, and even insisted that the army did not want to take back power. However, Al-Sisi tended to send messages from time to time, but his latest is a powerful message that expressed both worry and anger.
Al-Sisi further warned that the political, economical, social and security challenges facing Egypt currently constitute “a significant threat to the country’s security and solidarity”. “Allowing such a scene to continue without any attempt to tackle it by all parts would certainly lead to undesired consequences that would in turn affect the stability of the country. This would definitely damage our national security. Yet, the Egyptian army will remain the solid block and the strong pillar the Egyptian state trusts to rest its corners.”
Al-Sisi added that the Armed Forces belonged to all the Egyptian people, regardless of their sects and beliefs. He also justified that sending the troops to Suez Canal cities aimed to protect the vital and strategic targets and institutions. “On top of them, comes the Suez Canal which we will never allow to be harmed by any means.”
Al-Sisi called on protesters to keep their activities as peaceful as it requires to avoid clashes with his troops. “The Armed Forces face a serious dilemma which is how to secure and protect the strategic targets and at the same time to maintain the people’s right to demonstrate and express themselves. This can be handled by keeping protests as peaceful as it should.”
On Saturday Morsi headed a meeting of the National Defence Council (NDC), its first since being formed in June 2012. The NDC comprises seven senior state officials and eight military leaders. The meeting, which lasted for four hours, took place at Al-Kobba Palace. It resulted in the issuing of a statement that did nothing to contain the growing crisis.
By Saturday night more than 400 people had been injured in Port Said and 32 deaths had been reported. On Sunday the situation deteriorated further. Security forces opened fire on the funeral processions of those killed the previous day. Armed groups attacked military facilities, attempted to torch a military club, and fired at soldiers as tens of thousands marched through the streets of Port Said.
Major-General Ahmed Wasfi, commander of the Second Army, deployed armoured vehicles and tanks around Port Said’s prison which protesters were trying to storm. After a running battle the prison was secured.
The Second Army has now been given responsibility for maintaining security in the northern section of the Suez Canal zone, in the governorates of Port Said, Ismailia and North Sinai.
Third Army Commander Osama Askar leads operation to secure the southern entrance of the Canal. Military police now patrol Suez. Tanks are stationed along main roads and squares and soldiers are protecting vital petroleum facilities and commercial and military harbours in Suez, Sokhna and Adabia.
Protesters surrounded a police station and the Suez prison, hurled Molotov cocktails at security forces and blocked the Suez-Cairo road.
On Monday Askar supervised the transfer of hundreds of prisoners from Attaka prison near Suez after receiving warnings of an imminent attack.
Armed Forces Spokesman Colonel Ahmed Mohamed Ali told Al-Ahram Weekly that the army had been entrusted with a raft of missions which “are part of its main duties by the constitution”.
“We returned to barracks seven months ago but remain committed to preserving the interests of the people, defending them against any internal or external threat.”
General Askar told the media the army had requested the right to detain civilians. Morsi allowed the military to impose temporary judicial custody on civilians during referendum on the constitution.
Riots in Port Said began on Saturday after a Cairo court sentenced 21 defendants to death for their part in the deaths of 74 Ahli football fans following a match with Port Said’s Masri club in February 2012.
“Egypt’s [security] apparatus will chase criminals and bring them to justice. They are also doing their best to protect and secure peaceful demonstrations,” Morsi said on Sunday.
Angry protesters in Cairo and other governorates blamed the army for helping the regime suspend judicial process. It was also accused of allowing the killing of dozens over two days in Port Said and Suez raised suspects about the intentions of the military in the current struggle.
Morsi’s speech did nothing to stop the violence in the streets. In Suez a group calling itself the Suez Youth Coalition said it would hold nightly protests against the curfew from 9pm onwards. In Port Said crowds began to gather just before the declaration was set to take effect.
“Those who challenge the army or attack it are seeking to undermine the state,” said the military spokesman. “Each political group believes the army is on its side. This shows that the army has regained its positive image after two years of attempts to distort it. But the army will never take the side of one group against another. The Armed Forces should and will remain away from any political struggle,” said Ali.