Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1154, (27 June - 3 July 2013)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1154, (27 June - 3 July 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Army on standby

The Armed Forces will not stand still, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Ahram Weekly

As 30 June looms closer, it looks like nothing will alter the inevitable that lies in wait for this country one year after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) handed power to a civilian president. It was a year filled with dire assessments on most political, economic, social and security concerns. Perhaps the only positive development was that achieved by the military establishment which, over the course of the past year, has succeeded in turning around its public image from that encapsulated in the slogan “Down with military rule” to almost the very antithesis. This has been expressed in calls for the army to assume control again in order to stabilise the situation so that the post-revolutionary clock be turned back to zero and the interim phase can begin afresh with the army acting as the trustworthy temporary administrator of the nation.

Defence Minister General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has advanced the army as a political player again. His charismatic speech at an awareness raising seminar in Galaa Theatre on Sunday signalled that the army could step forward again to play a role in the political process at this critical juncture. Former deputy chief of the General Intelligence Service General Hossam Kheirallah told Al-Ahram Weekly, “With this speech, General Al-Sisi has presented himself as an alternative for the near future. Without going overboard in praise, his speech reflects many virtues in his character. He is the only person who succeeded in bringing his institution [the army] back from the brink of disaster in a state in which virtually everything else has collapsed within the space of a year. He is the only one who could speak to the street, bolstered by his success in this institution. We believe that 30 June will usher in the beginning of a new phase which will begin with negotiations over arrangements for when the president steps down. The fear that the scenario of chaos and civil strife was inevitable has been dispelled, although perhaps it was natural to expect that this would be louder than the voice of politics.” 

Armed Forces spokesman Colonel Mohamed Ali summarised General Al-Sisi’s speech in 11 points, “each of which builds on the previous points logically and cohesively.” Indeed, all the sources that the Weekly spoke to agreed with Ali that “the speech was formulated with consummate care and precision at a time when the country needs consummate care and precision. It was also shaped by astute military expertise and with the unanimous approval of all the [military] leaders with whom General Al-Sisi began to consult at least two days beforehand, since the [Islamists’] ‘No to Violence’ rally on Friday in front of Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque. What Al-Sisi said in his speech reflected the current sense of the situation and a unanimity of opinion among all quarters of the Armed Forces.”

Perhaps some of the political forces misinterpreted the points in the speech. The Muslim Brotherhood reacted with alarm, as though it feared that Al-Sisi was signalling an imminent “soft coup” against the president. For at least eight hours they held their breath as they attempted to assess the situation. During this period, Muslim Brotherhood members were instructed not to appear in the media. According to sources in the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) leadership, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing put everything on hold as they awaited the word from the office of the supreme guide. As one FJP source described the mood among the FJP leadership at that time, “it was like awaiting sentencing”.

Finally, they received a message from the office of the supreme guide, delivered by the Muslim Brotherhood Secretary-General Mahmoud Hussein who was in contact with Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat Al-Shater and the president. The message said, “Relax. No need to worry”. No further details were offered. However, Hussein said that he had spoken with other leaders and the conclusion was that the Muslim Brotherhood could deal with the situation more flexibly by calling for an unconditional dialogue in which everything would be negotiable except for the need for the president to remain in office until the completion of his term.

Al-Sisi’s speech which was published on the military spokesman’s webpage on Sunday, was also, for the first time, rebroadcast via the Internet so as to give viewers the opportunity to catch the details of the speech and to sense the atmosphere in the hall as Al-Sisi delivered it live. For example, the room was filled with seven-minute applause after he said, “Death is preferable to those who threaten the Egyptian people or spill their blood.” 

Later that day, Al-Sisi arrived at the presidential palace for a meeting with the president. A source in the palace revealed that Morsi had been unaware of Al-Sisi’s speech and that the meeting had been prearranged. According to an informed source, Morsi had assured Al-Sisi during that meeting that he and the Muslim Brotherhood guaranteed that its members would remain peaceful on 30 June and that they would not carry arms or incite violence. The president was then said to have cautioned that the army should keep its eyes on the “other side”. The two agreed that there had to be a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC).

In the interval between the meeting between Morsi and Al-Sisi and the NSC meeting there was a flurry of contacts between various parties. However, the most important and most frequent were those conducted with or via the US embassy in Cairo which has sought to sustain good relations with the Muslim Brotherhood in spite of the reservations embassy officials have voiced over its performance and in spite of the refusal to heed much of the advice coming out of Washington. Although few details have been revealed about this communications, the embassy reproached the MB Guidance Bureau for revealing details about the relationship between them. It also came to light recently that there had been a meeting between Al-Shater and Ambassador Anne Patterson.

General Hamdi Bakhit, a military expert, maintains that there are a couple of points with regard to Al-Sisi’s speech that should be borne in mind before considering what took place in the NSC meeting. Firstly, this was the second time the army called upon the political forces to engage in dialogue. If the first dialogue, which the president had prevented, had succeeded, Egypt would have avoided many risks and dangers. In Bakhit’s opinion, the second call for a dialogue is unlikely to succeed because “now the parties are so far apart that it has become impossible to find common ground between them.”

The second point is that the army feels that the president has failed in the test of his membership in the military establishment as commander-in-chief. A strong indication of this is his failure to stem the indignities inflicted against this establishment by “spiteful members of his ‘family and tribe’”, as Bakhit put it, quoting the terms with which Morsi addressed his Muslim Brotherhood supporters in a speech at the presidential palace last year.

Therefore, he said, Al-Sisi had a strong sense of the pulse in the military establishment which is united in its confidence of General Al-Sisi and the members of SCAF, while it feels that the president’s affiliation with the army is simply in name only. Bakhit stressed that this general feeling has been confirmed by precise and reliable opinion polls conducted in the military establishment. He added, “the army, at present, no longer feels confident that the current political entities are capable of realising the ambitions of the people and that the army will have to step in sooner or later.”

Surprisingly, the NSC meeting failed to produce a spark of hope in the possibility that the opposition could be persuaded to engage in dialogue. However, military expert General Talaat Muslim could understand this. “The repeated calls to dialogue have lost their glimmer,” he said. “Even such basic demands as the call for a new government, the dismissal of the current prosecutor-general and the appointment of an alternative by the Supreme Judicial Council, and a general dialogue over amending the constitution have gone unheard. Now, I’m afraid that it might be too late to discuss even these measures. It is clear that the president and his group have shut their ears to all advice and persisted on their course, on their own. I do not believe they realise the consequences of that way of doing things.”

A Muslim Brotherhood official told the Weekly that his group will not initiate violence because it fears the wrath of the army. However, from our discussion with this official, it appears that the Muslim Brotherhood is unaware of the state of apprehension of the Armed Forces. At the same time, according to this source, “there are intentions that some Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya members are trying to export in political corridors.” This corroborates what a military source reported to the Weekly: “Safwat Abdel-Ghani, a former leader of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and currently an official in the Construction and Development Party, accused the Muslim Brotherhood, in a meeting with Al-Shater, of being too lenient with the liberals and leftists. He said that this language won’t work with that trend — the ‘liberals and leftists’.”

A highly placed official told the Weekly that the weapons reports that were submitted to the NSC were extremely worrying and fed the belief that certain parties have prepared for an armed engagement. “It is essential that there is a party that can stop those forces if the demonstrations turn violent. I believe that the army has said what it has to say on this matter and that the message came across to those whom it may concern, that if the army is compelled to resort to force of arms the losses will be great, but it has no desire to go this way.”

Another source with knowledge of what transpired in the NSC meeting suggested that it did not focus on what it should have. On the other hand, he pointed out that Al-Sisi’s attendance at that meeting did not indicate a change in position since his Sunday speech. “On the contrary, he brought the president into the picture and effectively told him that he had to stop taking decisions on his own or through the Muslim Brotherhood. In other words, from now on every decision had to be taken in full view of the NSC.”

The source continued, “According to my assessment of what transpired in that meeting, we are headed towards 30 June in a way that Egypt would not wish. They [referring to the Islamists] are playing with fire and it will burn them. Their decision to take to the field on Friday, two days in advance of the forthcoming Tamarod protest, is effectively a declaration of war against the other side and a sure sign that they will initiate violence as was confirmed in last Friday’s ‘Kandahar III’ demonstration at Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque. They lack all sense of responsibility, for which reason a clash is imminent. The army has lost all confidence in them because it realises that the promises that Morsi gave to Al-Sisi were mere words and that the call to dialogue is mere words. But the army is at the ready and it has detailed contingency plans.”

The source said that the plans range from how to safeguard vital infrastructure and protect public services to how to respond to attempted infiltrations of army ranks, rioting and armed violence. The plans also cover possible side battles in Sinai, for example, as well as possible attempts to ignite trouble beyond our borders. Already, the army has stepped up border security and is coordinating with the presidency and the Ministry of Interior on many other security-related tasks. A fully equipped and comprehensive operations room is up and running for these purposes as well as for handling political dimensions such as the army’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood or a dialogue with the diverse secularist political forces.

For the moment, however, the army is on standby in anticipation of whatever happens on 30 June. Afterwards, it will assess the situation and determine the course it will follow in the future, including whether or not Morsi remains in power, in accordance with the principles that have been agreed upon by the commanders of the Armed Forces, the source concluded.

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